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September 6th, 2005
Unfinished Country
Filmmaker Notes: Daniel Morel, Jane Regan, and Whitney Dow

Daniel Morel and Jane Regan

Jane Regan and Daniel Morel take a moment’s break after covering the attack of scores of paramilitary “rebels” led by former police chief Guy Philippe on Cap-Haitien, Haiti, on Feb. 22, 2004. The taking of the Cap was the rebels’ last offensive before Aristide fled the country, seven days later.
Credits: Peter Bosch/Miami Herald

The genesis of this project was in our experiences covering the downfall of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. We have been documenting Haitian political, social, and cultural life for a combined total of three decades, Daniel as a photojournalist since before the downfall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, and Jane as a writer, filmmaker, and human rights advocate for the past decade. In 2002, we covered every aspect of the violent uprising that led to Aristide’s ouster. Because of our unique access to Haiti’s power players, we were often the only journalists getting news and images out of the country as it was gripped by violence and wrenched by despair.

We traveled with Butteur Métayer, Guy Philippe, and the Cannibal Army during their successful effort to drive Aristide from power, and captured in stills and video what no other journalists had been able to do: a street-level document of the Haitian government’s downfall. It was during this time that we began planning a documentary we hoped would reveal some of the conditions that led to the continual betrayal of the Haitian people by their leaders.

Having written extensively on Haitian politics and other issues, Jane had a good feel for the power players, and Daniel, because he covered almost a dozen governments in two decades on Haiti’s streets and in the halls of power, had seen the country’s politicians, businesspeople, and street toughs come and go … and come again. Beginning early on, together we had had our eyes on people we thought would work well as characters in a film.

But with all our access and knowledge, we still faced a challenge. We had known the film’s potential characters for years, in some cases decades. Philippe, Cantave, Fequi�re, even Métayer and Nicolas were not only our subjects … they were our neighbors; they were fellow countrymen and women. After 10 or 20 years in a place like Haiti, where people are struggling for change, where friends and family members die trying, where hope has turned to despair, a journalist becomes a little bit a part of his or her subject. Objectivity is maintained during the framing of the shot or the writing of the paragraph, but for the rest of the 24 hours in the day, the heart is wrenched. The spirit is trampled.

We approached Whitney because we respected his work in previous documentaries, especially TWO TOWNS OF JASPER. Whitney and his partner at Two Tone did not and do not objectify their subjects. They let them tell their stories. The subjects are characters who make you laugh, cry, and anguish. This was the kind of touch we have and the kind of partner we needed. And the fact that Jane and Whitney were childhood friends meant they shared a common grammar and experience. They had a trust rooted in those indescribable childhood adventures in backyards, on beaches, in boats, and in city streets.

The shoot itself was tough. Despite the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force and the so-called “stabilization” of the country, the three of us faced challenges every day. No appointment could be counted on; no interview was sure until it was “in the can.” Problems ranged from no electricity to sudden demonstrations or sniper attacks. At one point during the filming we were surrounded by a group of thugs outside a Port-au-Prince slum who were armed with AK-47s and 9 mm handguns. If we had not been recognized by one of the group, there is no telling what could have happened. If you watch the third photo montage in the film closely, you see a man with a hole in his head who was killed by the same group, in the same spot, just two weeks later.

Getting a film about Haiti onto prime-time television was no easy feat. WIDE ANGLE should be credited for taking the risk. The eyes and ears of the United States and Europe, if they are turned abroad at all, are turned toward the Middle East. Many North Americans don’t even know that Haiti, the world’s first successful black republic, the result of a slave revolution that crushed Napoleon’s troops, even exists, much less that it exists a 90-minute flight from Miami. And they certainly don’t know — and, one could argue, don’t care — that one quarter of its population goes hungry every day, that one third of its children never set foot in a schoolroom, and that only one percent of its once beautiful land still has trees.

Haiti was once nicknamed “The Pearl of the Antilles.” But for 20 years, the pearl has been in a vicious circle, a downward spiral. This film gave us an opportunity to document some of the causes of that spiral as well as the reasons that maybe someday Haiti can take the first steps toward finishing its journey to become a real country where at least all children can eat once a day.

For us, this film was the culmination of major chapters in our separate and combined careers. Seeing it on the air will be bittersweet because it is, in a way, the end of our intense involvement with a country that we love and despair over at the same time.

Our hope is that those who see “Unfinished Country” will take the time to look into Haitian and U.S. history a little bit more, because Haiti’s horrors are not only due to her leaders’ corruption and her elite’s irresponsibility. They are intimately linked to foreign meddling. The United States has occupied Haiti twice and has spent billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to “aid” the country. Washington supported dictators and crooks. And the U.N. has also dumped billions, sending soldiers, planting trees, funding projects. Why are people still starving? Why does the country have only 4,000 police officers for 8 million people? Why — after all the “development” work — does Haiti produce less and less, and depend more and more on foreign goods and food?

The answers are not simple; but they aren’t that much of a mystery either. The future of Haiti depends on people like those in the film who aren’t afraid to stand up and speak out.

Whitney Dow

So much in Haiti is about mistrust. “Unfinished Country” is a film about trust: the trust forged between Daniel Morel and Jane Regan during their years of working in the combat zone that is Haiti; the trust they extended to me, an outsider, when they brought me into their very dangerous and complex world; the trust that the subjects of the film put in us, the filmmakers, when they agreed to be in the film — knowing that making any public political statement in Haiti, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can have deadly consequences.

I have known Jane since childhood and, as a friend, have followed her work in Haiti as a human rights activist and journalist for many years. But it was only in 2003, when Jane visited me in New York, that I came to truly understand what she was up to in Haiti. She showed me the unbelievable footage that she had shot during the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as well as Daniel’s breathtaking photographic work. Over the coming months we discussed the possibilities for creating a film about Haiti and at a certain point decided that we should make it together.

Despite the long association between Haiti and the United States, I, like most Americans, had never been really interested in Haiti. I thought of it as a massively dysfunctional place that was also the home of a friend I worried about whenever I read about the latest catastrophe to hit the country. Jane and Daniel introduced me to a complex world filled with incredible characters and a wounded country desperate to find a way out of its dire conditions. I have long felt that most American films that cover foreign countries in distress, especially countries where most citizens are black, many times have an unpleasant element of “look at the animals in their cages.” I knew that working with Jane and Daniel would be different. Jane and Daniel had more than knowledge and access in Haiti — they were part of the fabric of the country.

Although my past films have focused on the role that race plays in American society and I believe that there are numerous American subjects worthy of documentation, I feel that as the United States increasingly wields its power in the world, perhaps it is more important that we as Americans learn about countries different than our own, countries that feel the impact of our every action, so we have a better understanding of the world outside our borders. For me it was incredibly illuminating to work in Haiti and look back at the United States through Haitian eyes and see what America means to less powerful countries.

WIDE ANGLE is a unique television series with a very important mission. It is the only foreign affairs series that covers other countries from the perspective of the people who live there, and gives viewers not just a way to understand the stories that are playing out around the world but also a way to make a human connection to the people involved in those stories. When we approached WIDE ANGLE about a project with them, it was clear that our vision for the film, a film about Haiti told by Haitians, would be a good fit for the series.

I feel extremely privileged to have been part of this project, to be able to both work with Daniel and Jane and have WIDE ANGLE bring the film to millions of people. I am not so naíve to think that a film can have much impact on a situation that has been festering for 200 years, but we hope that by telling this story it will give some Americans a better understanding of why their neighbor to the south finds it so hard to create a stable and productive society.


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