Fatal Assistance: Berlin Review

Fatal Assistance Film Still - H 2013
Velvet Film 2012

Fatal Assistance Film Still - H 2013

A coldly damning essay on the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti recounts the paltry results achieved by billions in promised foreign aid.

The international community that raced to aid Haiti after the January 2010 quake left the country in rubble is put under the magnifying glass by filmmaker Raoul Peck.

A disaster film taking as its subject not the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that left 250,000 dead, but the misdirected international relief efforts for the 1.2 million homeless that followed in its wake, Fatal Assistance is a chilling indictment of how billions of dollars in aid were squandered or lost, and how aid and politics are inextricably linked.

The documentary is all the more depressing because of the intelligence and authority with which it’s written and directed by leading Haiti-born filmmaker Raoul Peck (The Man by the Shore, Lumumba-Death of a Prophet), who is implacably critical of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) co-chaired by Bill Clinton. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also has several walk-ons, as do celebrities Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and the country’s former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Though bound to earn festival mileage, the topic itself and the non-exploitative way the earthquake’s aftermath is presented offer little to draw mainstream audiences.

It’s not always easy to follow Peck’s meticulous reconstruction of the international community’s promises of some $11 billion in aid and the disappointing results. The stakes are so high and the strategic interests so complex, there’s a lot to tell from many points of view. The IHRC was created shortly after the quake and was composed of 13 “major donors” of $100,000 or more, including the U.S., France and world banks, plus 13 “national” members who, by the end of the film, protest that they have only been included as rubber stamps for the stakeholders’ decisions.

The Haitian government was notably excluded from the umbrella organization, ostensibly to avoid corruption, but the funds vanish in a thousand other ways. Four different humanitarian organizations (at one point there are 4,000 in Haiti) work consecutively on the same project; the NGOs fight among themselves; they try to build a hospital next-door to a pre-existing one, instead of where one is actually needed, and so on. The immediate priority is debris removal but, because it isn’t "sexy," there are practically no funds available to carry it out.

Peck, who served as Haiti’s minister of culture in the 1990s, shows an insider’s insight into and cynicism about politics. The confused story of the presidential elections, which were eventually won by Michel Martelly, is further disturbed by the interference of the international community. The film depicts them as well-intentioned but incompetent, and manipulated by huge political interests behind the scenes. Peck turns a cold eye on the role of the Clintons, particularly Bill’s multiple official roles in the would-be reconstruction. His strongest criticism, however, is reserved for what he calls the blind dictatorship of aid, “a paternalistic monster pretending to solve the problems from which it benefits.”

The last part of the doc recounts the creation of Corail outside the city of Port-au-Prince, originally intended to offer shelter to some 7,000 homeless living on a soggy, overcrowded golf course. (Sean Penn, who appears only briefly, was involved with this group.) But without proper urban planning, the new location turns into a true disaster area, where 200,000 squatters live in a tent city while the relief agencies attempt to build flimsy housing around them. These rows of small, garage-like structures without electricity, plumbing or kitchens are the most concrete results the agencies leave behind them when they pull out of Haiti.

While drawing on a wide range of testimony in taped interviews in French and Creole, Peck personalizes events with an English-language voice-over mimicking an exchange of letters between a man and woman who seem to have worked together in a relief organization and whose take on the situation is devastating. Their fictional voices are reinforced by the judgments of American reconstruction expert Priscilla M. Phelps and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, among others.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production companies:
Velvet Film, Figuier Production, Arte France in association withRTBF, Entre Chien et Loup
Raoul Peck
Screenwriter:  Raoul Peck
Remi Grellety, Raoul Peck, Hebert Peck
Directors of photography:
Rachele Magloire, Kirsten Johnson, Antoine Struyf, Rafael Solis, Richard Senecal
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
Alexei Aigui
Sales Agent:
Doc & Film International
99 minutes