HRWFF Review: Fatal Assistance


The numbers of the 2010 Haitian earthquake are heartbreaking: between 220,000 to 316,000 dead, and roughly 280,000 residences and commercial buildings destroyed or severely damaged. The debris caused by the earthquake is staggering as well. At one point during Raoul Peck’s documentary Fatal Assistance, we learn that the quake debris far exceeds that of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. I didn’t get the exact numbers in my notes, but a BBC report from January 2011 estimated 10 million cubic meters of debris, the equivalent of 10 WTC sites.

Now more than three years after the quake, rebuilding efforts have shown little progress, and the hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitian people have made permanent settlements in areas initially meant to be temporary residences. They’re far away from roads and infrastructure. If the quake itself was bad, the aftermath has proven similarly brutal, though maybe more so since this botched relief and rebuilding effort is a man-made disaster.

There’s a sense of helplessness for the survivors, which is why Fatal Assistance is driven by equal parts outrage and exasperation. The NGOs that swooped into Haiti to save the day have potentially made things worse through incompetence and broken promises. Sure, they may have had good intentions initially, though they probably weren’t thinking about what was best for Haiti or its people.

[For the next two weeks we will be covering the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, which runs from June 13th to June 23rd. The films at the festival are dedicated to bringing awareness to human rights issues around the world and laying the groundwork for justice and change. For more information and a full schedule, visit]

Fatal Assistance (Assistance Mortelle)
Director: Raoul Peck
Rating: TBD
Country: Haiti/France/US
Release Date: TBD

The idea of aimless good intentions is at the heart of Fatal Assistance. If this weren’t a documentary, it would be a pitch black satire of the absurdities tied to foreign aid and NGOs. Country after country, group after group pledged aid and services to Haiti, and there was hope that rebuilding would begin and the country would finally be renewed. The initial media scrutiny was such that celebrities flew in to do their part, like Sean Penn, who’s seen in the film organizing buses to ship displaced Haitians to temporary (soon to become permanent) settlements. Bill Clinton’s own global aid group, The Clinton Global Initiative, was on the ground and helping in some fashion with the rebuilding effort.

We’re shown plans for new settlements in Haiti by some NGOs and global groups, each one demonstrating utter tone deafness to the culture and the immediate needs of the people. One project is a series of high rise apartments — projects in the colors of flamingos and neon bar signs. Another has a series of idyllic homes that are far too Levittown. As many Haitians and politicians interviewed in the documentary repeat, none of these groups asked for Haitian input in the creation of these housing concepts. The act of rebuilding would instead be a form of cultural imposition — welcome to foreign aid in the era of commercialization and globalization.

Of course, these housing concepts remain mere concepts and can never get off the ground because of all the debris from the earthquake. Many of the NGOs and governments would be happy to pay for the rebuilding, but few are willing to assist in the cleanup that needs to take place before the rebuilding can actually begin. As someone explains in the film, it’s easy to sell NGO donors on the idea of new buildings, but it’s hard to sell these donors on the idea of hauling away tons of concrete and clearing out the sewers. As a result, the vast majority of promised foreign aid money was never distributed in full; every ruined building that still stands is a monument to, among many things, acts of colossal shortsightedness.

In the meantime, displaced Haitians live in tiny, leaky settlements in the middle of nowhere. They are without kitchens or electricity or plumping. Few are happy with their living situation, but they were given no alternative. Previously they’d settled in makeshift tents on a golf course, but obviously that couldn’t last. Sean Penn’s triumphant yet disorganized caravan of buses ships these people away the verdant green and out into the arid, dusty landscape they will be forced to call home. Penn and others like him (e.g., that dumb jerk Bob Geldof) may raise awareness, but maybe they should just get the money where it’s actually needed. With so many others blundering the humanitarian effort, little errors highlight the enormity of the tragedy and the absurdity of its aftermath.

As Peck tracks the course of this failing aid effort, he also exposes a darker side of these NGOs. Obviously there’s the need for them to promote their organization to attract donors, but many times these acts of self-promotion are of primary concern while actual aid is pushed to the background. It’s no longer about being a good Samaritan; it’s all about fevered egos and great PR.

The Clinton Global Initiative is shown to be especially ineffective in this regard. Bill Clinton shows up and while his presence brings some media scrutiny and attention, it leads to nothing of substance — no aid, no cleanup, no rebuilding. Words, rhetoric, dialogue, but no action, simply the possibility of action at some indeterminate time in the future. Much of this inaction may be a case of too many cooks in Haitian relief, and they all have their own agendas. No one knows what anyone is doing, but they’re all gathered around the same pot and making an awful slurry of the stew. But it’s okay because none of them actually have to eat the mess they’re making.

There’s an even dirtier side to all this when the NGOs become involved in monitoring the country’s elections. Certain candidates are favored and certain allegiances are at stake, and since the NGOs are footing the bill for the rebuilding effort (which has not moved forward), they seem to think they have a hand in playing kingmaker/president maker. During these moments, the score feels like it’s accompaniment for a dark carnival or spectacle of some kind — here is an ugly circus playing out across the rubble of a country. The music is similarly employed when deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier returns to the country. It’s a dark fanfare for the potential storm clouds looming on the hills, though obscured by rubble.

Haitian President René Préval seems impotent to do anything. He goes to the UN in search of direct aid and instead gets a pitch from Coca Cola; the company wants to use Haiti’s produce for a new drink of some kind. Préval sips and smiles politely like a man at the verge of tears. Again, if this wasn’t real life, it would make a great satire; maybe we’ve reached that point in time where unintentional satire is the new and frightening normal — so many of these large groups are totally oblivious to the way that they’re presenting themselves.

This all underlies another fundamental part of Fatal Assistance: distrust of the Other. Foreign groups don’t trust Haitians to design their own post-quake Haiti; the foreign groups only care about their own agendas within Haiti. Coca Cola knows what’s best for Haiti. The Clinton Global Initiative knows what’s best for Haiti. Sean Penn knows what’s best for Haitians. Groups that build temporary housing as cheaply as possible know what’s best for Haitians. What should the Haitians do while everyone is doing what’s best? Go live somewhere else, be quiet, and be patient. There’s a sadness to this sort of resilience, and to this unbreakable pattern of ruin.

The fundamentally depressing thing about Fatal Assistance is that there’s human suffering behind every poor decision. Donating foreign bottled water, for instance, has an unintended consequence: Haitians can’t pump money into their own floundering economy. One of the Haitians interviewed in the film says if the Haitian people were given direct monetary aid to buy necessities and rebuild on their own, that could have helped fuel the country and propel the rebuilding effort.

It’s a big “what if,” and much of Fatal Assistance is built on hypothetical assumptions. To some degree that’s simply the nature of hindsight following a chain of failures. The difficulty now is re-igniting international interest in rebuilding Haiti. And yet I wonder if it will actually be rebuilt, let alone in Haiti’s image. Many people probably made their donations in those first weeks or months after the quake and stopped paying attention; media scrutiny over Haiti has waned and may not occur again until the next annual commemoration of the quake in January 2014. It’s hard to say if people have stopped caring because they don’t know what’s happening in Haiti or simply don’t care anymore because it’s been three years now and nothing has been accomplished. I hope Fatal Assistance can change this, and I hope Peck’s urgency and outrage gets people interested in Haiti again rather than feeling defeated or apathetic.

Sometimes leaving things up to governments, NGOs, and corporations is a way we absolve ourselves of responsibility given how immense these sorts of problems are. The Adam Curtis series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace ended on a downer note about the desire for the West to change the world for the better. In essence, we’ve embraced a fatalistic idea of humans as helpless machines driven by genetic programming to excuse the fact that we cannot change the world for the better. “Maybe, but what if…?” might be the only hopeful response, and the only worthwhile one. Let’s at least ask the question better this time.

Fatal Assistance screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Wednesday, June 19 and Thursday, June 20. For tickets and more information, click here.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.