A Conversation with Dan Reed

Dan Reed

Producer and director of Battle for Haiti, Reed is a freelance filmmaker and writer whose previous documentaries include the Peabody Award-winning The Valley, on the Kosovo war, and more recently, Terror in Mumbai. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 3, 2011.

How did you come to this story - the decision to focus on the escape of the thousands of prisoners the night of the quake? Had you covered Haiti before?

No. I'd never been to Haiti. I didn't know anything about Haiti beyond Toussaint L'Ouverture. When I was a kid, I read a book of great men and Toussaint was one of them. A freed slave who became an amazingly skilled general and defeated the armies of Napoleon and Britain.

“People told me off the record, "Yeah, this is what's happening..." But they wouldn't go on the record. There's a conspiracy of silence -- the people, the Haitian community, the aid community in particular.”

And my assignment for the film was very loose, because I like to have a very loose brief -- "Do a film about Haiti for the anniversary of the quake." That's it.

And then, I like to go to the place where the story happens and find my own act, my own focus, which usually is not going to be what everyone else is focusing on. I find that if you spend two or three weeks in a place, which a lot of journalists don't have the luxury of being able to do, that something will come out of the place. Something will come at you, that you will feel an affinity for.

In this case, I hadn't heard about the jailbreak, I don't think, before I went to Haiti. And when I met Haiti's chief of police, Mario Andresol, on day two of my visit, I realized that this jailbreak was clearly a much bigger problem.

Eight of the prisons had been emptied, including the main National Penitentiary which contained more than half of the prisoners in the country. These prisoners were on the loose. A lot were holed up in the slums of Port au Prince. And I hadn't read any reporting on this, so I wasn't aware that it was such a big deal.

So to me this seemed to be an unusual angle on the earthquake.

And I instinctively felt that for the anniversary of the quake what I should do was to make a film that was not about the earthquake, but was about how Haiti was before the earthquake, and why that was making it difficult.

Because as soon as you arrive in Haiti, anyone can see it's a very difficult place to help because of a complete lack of a functioning state. So I started to connect the idea of the absence of a functioning state and the absence of law and order and the absence of rule of law, which is much wider than law and order.

Rule of law involves civil registry and land registry, all these things. These kind of law and order issues are not about policing, they're just about identity. And all of the institutions which allow us to lead a civilized life are absent in Haiti. Law and order, of course, is the first thing to go when there is no rule of law.

So, the story of the escaped prisoners became an exciting and an unusual way of revealing this underlying chronic problem which is preventing Haiti from arising from the ruins, not just of the earthquake, but of the dictatorships and political turmoil, all of the natural disasters before 2010.

How long were you there? What were the challenges?

After the three-week scouting trip, I went back for six weeks. The first two weeks of that were setting up the shoot. The shoot lasted four weeks.

The practical challenges of filming in Haiti are immense because nothing worked. The roads were smashed up. And it was very expensive. You have sort of two tiers of society where you're either driving a 4x4 and have very expensive restaurants and live in a small house in the hills, or you're living a life which a lot of people from the West wouldn't really accept.

You're living in squalid conditions and traveling around on foot, which we couldn't do because we have to have some transport for the equipment. The roads are smashed up. All the things which are occasionally a problem and a nonissue in a third-world country, even, became immense problems in Haiti.

What was it like making contacts and talking with people?

There's a tremendous number of outsiders in Haiti, most of whom are working in organizations helping the country.

Haitians have a sort of healthy skepticism, not to say an outright contempt, sometimes, about all this -- the number of outsiders coming in, driving nice cars, eating nice food, living in nice places, while ostensively being there to help. The gulf between living standards is so vast. I mean, you can't really expect aid workers to live in a shack. And yet there is very little middle ground, a kind of safe sort of middle residential options. I think that's one of the big problems in Haiti.

Were there some problems in particular that you didn't anticipate?

Yeah, a lot of evasion, a lot of people not really telling the truth. The extent of it was a surprise.

The Haitians have a word, 'marronage' which is sort of marooning -- the Maroons were the rebel slaves. And it's an attitude of perpetual kind of rebellion, where you're always ducking-diving, as we say. You're always shifting your ground so that your opponent cannot pin you down. And it becomes a sort of compulsive trade where you're constantly being wrong-footed by the people you're dealing with. And the Haitians readily admit that this is part of the national character. Everybody has their own different interpretation of this trait going on.

And we found it very hard to find Haitian journalists to speak to, to ask advice from, to collaborate with, because so many educated people have left. There's a real lack of that sort of experienced media people of TV and print. That was a real difficulty.

And, because Haitians have been living on the brink of survival for such a long time, you almost can't live without breaking the law. And the laws are often out of date. And so everyone has a little something to hide.

So you never really get a straight answer in anything. You have to show that you understand, and show that you know, so that people then start dealing with you more directly.

It takes a little while. Because I don't like to come to a country and assume the worst. It took me a long time to realize that, for instance, the Haitian justice system is completely broken, bankrupt and completely corrupt, and a lot of people were getting locked up in this prison without trials, for years and years and years. And you kind of look at the situation, and you think, "No, it can't be so totally bleak."

You think the police are going through the motions. But there are good cops who really believe in what they're doing and they have the right goals. But I think the institutions don't function, and Haitians aren't stupid -- they know that their institutions don't work. So there's an element of everyone just going through the motions -- the pretense that is there, and that is being played out for the UN, for the media, for all the outsiders who have money to give.

And sometimes you also feel what the cops would really like to do is to take the bad guys and put a bullet in their head and chuck them in a shallow grave somewhere. But they can't do that openly, although I think it does happen. They know that if they feed these guys into the prison system, the really bad guys who have money will bribe their way out, because a lot of the judges are bent. And the unfortunate thing is, a lot of guys who have, as they say in Haiti, 'stolen a chicken,' will be put away for five or six years because they never got a trial because the judges and the courts don't work.

And they don't have any money.

They don't have money to pay the lawyers. Yes, lawyers come to the jail, and the prisoners often, from what I learned, get cheated by the lawyers. So it's not just that Haitians are skimming money off outsiders. They're also cheating one another. And they're kind of forced into this type of behavior because all the institutions that will protect you, which give you rules and give you a pattern to work to, don't exist anymore.

Yet, amid all these chronic problems you have the two Haitian businessmen in the film. One is building a power plant, the other employing thousands of people producing t-shirts for the American market. What do they represent?

I met a great many people from what the Haitians call the "élite" -- and it's not quite as simple as the élite are all lighter skinned, what they call "mulâtres" (mulattos) and the political class are black, and the poor are black -- because now there are rich black Haitians and there are poor Mulatto Haitians. It's all a bit more mixed up now than it was in the 1940s, say.

But, generally speaking, the elite live up in the hills and they are almost like a different people to the Haitians in the slums. Although they share many, many cultural things with them, they have a very different attitude, they are better educated, they travel a lot. Again, this gulf is extreme.

The guys I interviewed in my film were unusual in that they were willing to be interviewed. The Haitian elite are extremely paranoid, extremely guarded, will not have anything to do with the media. Because they consider that they have been burned by the previous contact with the media, they have been characterized as this phrase that you always hear, "MRE"-- "morally repugnant élite" -- which some journalist coined back in the `80s. And they're often obsessed with being seen this way. Often without reason, as it happens.

But underlying their distrust of the media is also, I think, a sense that they know how they are perceived -- that they are the people who drive really nice cars, eat in nice restaurants, live in amazing houses, in a place where people are so poor. I mean, there are people in the élites who are out of touch, and who are living in a fantasy bubble.

Yet really, if you lived in Haiti and you had some money, you too would probably choose to live like that. You or I would live like that, because you want a car that drives over the potholes. You want a house where you can kick back and feel safe. You'd want to be able to catch a plane and get out for a few days now and again. You'd want to go to a beach house on the beautiful Haitian coast somewhere.

Often, a lot of them do make more money living in Haiti than they would if they emigrated to the States. You know, the business in Haiti is kind of divided up between a number of families. I think the degree of control of the families is often exaggerated. And the amount of money being made is not quite as great as some critics would have it. Some guys are making a little money, but most people are not really making fortunes by U.S. standards. And ultimately, these are Haiti's business people. This is what they call the private sector, the engine of Haiti's economy, what's left of it.

These two individuals that I put in the film: well, ultimately, if you're going to build a business in Haiti, you ought to do it with Haitian businessmen. So the Haitian élite is really the key to the place's future. A lot of people in Port au Prince are not going to go back to the fields. They're not going to go and grow rice. They have to have a way to make their own living somehow. They shouldn't have to emigrate to Boston and Montreal and New York, or subsist on handouts from charities. They should be able to earn a living. And the only way that more of the slum-dwellers of Port au Prince are going to earn a better living is through manufacturing or through tourism.

Tourism is the great hope of Haiti, really. The coastline is extremely beautiful and completely unspoiled and undeveloped. And Haiti genuinely does have a bright future as a tourist destination, once the rule of law can be reinstated, if it ever really existed; there was dictatorship, so there was a kind of rule of law.

But in order for foreign companies to come in and invest, you have to be sure, for instance, that the title for the land that you're investing in does actually belong to the person to whom you've given money. You have to be sure of basic stuff like that.

So yeah, the two guys in the film, Daniel Rousier and Richard Coles -- they're like the good guys, and there are plenty like them.

They represent Haiti's potential.

Absolutely they do. And they employ a lot of people. There are people like Daniel and Richard doing amazing things and also of course making money for themselves like all businessmen. Haitians want to work. They want jobs. They don't want to rely on handouts. So that is the future.

I think I was in two minds about including businessmen in the film. It's a film about gangsters escaping from prison. But I really felt a desperate need to have some hope and a way forward in the film.

And a lot of people don't realize that there is a private sector in Haiti; there is wealth and the opportunity to make money. The approach of a lot of journalists has been to dismiss them and to say they're just parasites. And, in fact, it's time to see these people for what they are, which is a mixture of good and bad. And certainly, without them, the country is never going to move forward.

What do you think the reaction will be to the film, among Haitians?

I think the film will have a real impact amongst Haitians living abroad -- because most documentaries about Haiti, I think it's fair to say, deal with our mission to 'save those poor people.' It becomes a chorus of condescension and compassion, but also Haitians are represented as victims, as helpless, as beautiful but tragic. And yes, you can see that in a country with plenty of tragedies, plenty of people need help. I didn't want to detract from what anyone is doing to help.

But that's not the reality. When you go there, you don't feel there's a nation of people sitting on their backsides waiting for a handout, necessarily. There is that. There is also a lot of resourceful people there, and people who don't consider themselves victims at all, people who resent handouts and people who think that actually the country might be better off without any outside help at all.

It seems to me extraordinary that after billions of dollars - $12 billion dollars is the figure often quoted - spent in aid so far, in the years before the earthquake, plus all the money spent in the year since the earthquake -- I wouldn't say that it's been completely ineffectual, but there is very little to show for it. The roads are in dreadful condition, for instance. The first thing that Haiti needs, I think, is roads. You need to be able to get from A to B. Yet the condition of the roads is paralyzing the capital city where most people go to earn money. It may not be a priority for people driving a big new 4x4, but it sure is if you're pushing a handcart or driving a beaten-up old automobile.

And Haiti needs security. Some people will criticize my film because they say we don't need another film that says how dangerous Haiti is -- it's been a big theme that Haiti has been portrayed as anarchic, as just a terrifying place to go.

Now it's true that there isn't a war going on in Haiti ... you can safely walk around some parts of Port au Prince. But, it's also true that a lot of Haitians live in fear. The state gives you no help, no protection whatsoever. The state doesn't exist, in fact, in any practical, consistent sense. You might see a policeman now and again, but otherwise, the state simply doesn't exist. You have to fend for yourself.

So, you have to get together a little bit of money. And you have to use that money to start a business, or do something to make you some more money. And, as soon as you do that, you will be robbed. And that's just what happens.

I met so many people, and I couldn't include all of them in the film, who just said to me, "Look. We don't need charity. We want security. We want security." It was a refrain from all social classes, but particularly the poor. And I think this is a problem which is not appreciated. But it has to come first.

What about MINUSTAH, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, and its focus on security and stabilizing the country?

MINUSTAH is 57 countries trying to police a nation. And Haiti is the kind of place that's so complex that, first of all, you have to speak the language before you can stand a chance. MINUSTAH can prevent another coup, which is essentially what it's there to do.

But MINUSTAH cannot really guarantee law and order, because it cannot work closely enough with the people. That's the Haitian police's job. The Haitian police is struggling. It's much better than it was, but it's really struggling. It doesn't have equipment, it's undermanned, undertrained, under everything. And so, the prospect of Haitians getting security is a dim and distant one.

Was it difficult to find people who would be candid on camera about the situation?

Yes. I met people who told me off the record, "Yeah, this is what's happening..." But they wouldn't go on the record because they said, "I'll lose my job." Or "I'll be killed." So there's a kind of consensus; a sort of conspiracy of silence amongst the people, the Haitian community and the aid community in particular. "We can't say it quite like it is, because we'll undermine our mission, it will get into the news."

The chronic problems that come through powerfully in the film seem almost insurmountable, at least short-term. How long can this continue -- the stasis?

I think the stasis can continue forever. And that's a tragedy, because, fundamentally, it's a political problem and the political problem will not get resolved because the UN is there as a buffer. Regime change in Haiti often happens violently.

All the Haitians that I have spoken to -- all of them, without exception -- have said, "What we need is a stronger government which will impose the rule of law. We don't necessarily need democracy."

In fact, you will often find people saying, "We've had too much democracy too fast. We're not ready for it." And also, what democracy has done is it's meant that gang leaders who control large numbers of votes have been able to have leverage now with politicians who need their support in order to deliver those votes.

So, without Cite Soleil, and without Martissant, another big slum area, you cannot win the presidency. You have to go to the gangsters who control those areas, because they will tell people how to vote. Now, that may not be so much the case now, say the optimists - but it certainly was the case three, four years ago. And it still is the case enough to make democracy in Haiti not correspond to what we think it should be. We all think of democracy as people deciding for themselves who they want to be governed by, and expressing their political choice in a free way. And that's not the case in Haiti.

So a lot of people say, "What we want is a strong government to stop the robberies, stop the crime, get the youth back in school" -- all of those basic things to try and create a civil society first. That's what people are desperate for. They want their kids to go to school. They want to work. They want roads. They want clean water. But they can't have them now, because nothing works. You can't go from A to B without getting robbed before you get home.

So, stasis is really the worst thing. But it suits us in the donor countries, because it means we don't have to make difficult choices.

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Posted January 11, 2011

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