Dir: Raoul Peck. France-Haiti-US-Belgium. 2012. 99mins

Fatal Assistance

In January 2010, an earthquake brought Haiti to its knees, killing 250,000. Two years later, in Raul Peck’s discouraging look at the country, Haiti was still down, mainly thanks to the botched relief efforts of international organisations.

Lyrically filmed, given the subject matter, Fatal Assistance is a timely reminder of the inadequacy and incompetence of most relief efforts worldwide.

In its title, Fatal Assistance (Assistance Mortelle) evokes the deadly rage of a rejected lover from a one-night stand, but non-governmental organisations stayed much longer in the Pearl of the Antilles. While they didn’t kill Haiti, Peck’s doc shows that they left it on a perilous life support. 

Shrewd in its analysis and poetic in a voice-over narration, Fatal Assistance suffers from the problem that Haiti is no longer the crisis of the week.  The doc will play in festivals, which tend to show films that exhume long-neglected trouble spots. Yet theatrical release seems unlikely, so Fatal Assistance’s odd fate is that it may screen at events sponsored by non-governmental charities, perhaps some of the same institutions that it skewers at feature-length.

Veteran film-maker Peck (The Man By The Shore, Lumumba-Death Of The Prophet) travels along a timeline as interviews and nightmarish archival footage examine the devastation that the earthquake brought to his native Haiti. He then tracks the international help that would put it deeper into the hole.  

Priscilla Phelps, an American housing adviser, attacks the institutions for whom she worked while acknowledging their good intentions. Like the eloquent voice-over by producer Hebert Peck, she is credible, and damning. (A female voice-over, in the form of a letter evoking the crisis, is less persuasive.)

Haiti hasn’t lacked for leaders, just for good ones. In Fatal Assistance they emerge at election time like an endless number of dark-suited characters exiting a car at the circus. Peck also gives us plenty of footage of dull meetings with Haitian leaders (mostly silent) and top personnel from all over the world, led by (but hardly limited to) Bill Clinton, who chaired the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). Insiders joke that, when the camera-friendly Clinton was around, the relief umbrella organisation was called “Haitian Reconstruction: The Movie.”

Relief wasn’t just about exposure for politicians. Most of the money spent went to firms and contractors in the donor countries, we’re told.

Yet the talk-aholic Bill Clinton was far from the worst adviser to take up Haiti’s time. Peck shows haunting footage of the return of the ghostly aged “Baby Doc” Jean Duvalier, Haiti’s brutal ex-president-for-life, who flies in with a once-chic wife bearing the scars of too much plastic surgery when there’s a leadership void. Haiti did not immediately imprison the former dictator, but exonerated him of crimes against humanity, proof that there were other problems facing the island than the bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude of the NGOs. 

And there were. A vast plain outside Port-au-Prince was covered with houses of concrete and wood, which lacked plumbing but still leaked, without transport or any amenities – hundreds of reminders of the rich friends who decamped for the next disaster.

Peck’s doc is distilled from hundreds of hours shot, attesting to a substantial budget – and the help of NGOs? In cutting so much, the stories lose continuity and context. Much of what he leaves out are also the many instances of violence, gangs and rampant corruption  — the obvious clichés, Haitians like Peck might say, but still ugly truths in that still-desperate country.   

Lyrically filmed, given the subject matter, Fatal Assistance is a timely reminder of the inadequacy and incompetence of most relief efforts worldwide – including unfinished efforts in the US for Katrina and Sandy – but it’s also testimony to how quickly the moralists of the major institutions forget.

Given how those institutions operated, Peck might be skeptical of the attention that could revisit the world’s charities on his native land.

Production companies: Arte, RTBF, Entre Chien et Loup, Velvet Film, Figuier Production

International Sales: Doc & Film International, www.docandfilm.com

Producers: Rémi Grellety, Raoul Peck, Hébert Peck

Co-producers: Martine Saada, Diana Elbaum, Alex Szalat, Wilbur Leguebe

Screenplay: Raoul Peck  

Cinematography: Rachele Magloire, Kirsten Johnson, Antoine Struyf, Rafael Solis, Richard Senecal

Editor: Alexandra Strauss

Music: Alexei Aigui