Friday, February 28, 2014

Fatal Assistance: a Scattered, Impressionistic Look at Haiti's Post-Quake Problems

There's no more sobering example of the feeble results of the massive, multibillion-dollar relief effort that is post-Haitian-earthquake reconstruction than the pathetic one-room shacks, with no plumbing or cooking areas, finally built by the international do-gooders who swarmed the island.

In Fatal Assistance, director Raoul Peck, a Haitian native, demonstrates that multinational relief groups and celebrities did little to relieve Haiti's plight -- a gruesome worsening of a housing situation that was critical even before a debilitating 7.0 magnitude quake shook it to rubble in 2010.

But Peck doesn't exactly make the why all that clear. The mass of dead bodies and debris to be moved was immense, requiring manpower, expertise, and, above all, money, but that problem wasn't quite sexy enough for the likes of Sean Penn, outside relief groups, and their mountains of cash.

Haitian politicians and agencies got sidelined, but Peck doesn't really address the stated reason: the outsiders' fear of local corruption. Housing expert Priscilla Phelps of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission led by Bill Clinton offers a pointed critique, but her contributions to the film's argument come here and there, without focus.

Voiceovers that are a fictional exchange of letters, like most dull re-enactments, sap the film's force. Peck's documentary is not a penetrating look at at Haiti's post-quake problems, but a scattered, impressionistic one. It unveils the bureaucracy, naïveté, and historical forces plaguing Haiti to this day, but it's no more than a forceful poke at a hornet's nest.

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