On Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, killing some 250,000 people, injuring millions, leaving a million and a half homeless. Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, in his earnest but obfuscating documentary, “Fatal Assistance,” conveys the horror of those 75 seconds with a few black-and-white images taken from security cameras. They show blurry figures, knocked down by the enormous shock, struggling crab-like to escape while the world buckles beneath them, until a ferocious cloud of debris and dust obliterates everything. But it is after the catastrophe, says Peck in voice-over, that the real catastrophe happens. And the confusion.
The world overflows with compassion, pouring aid and money into the stricken nation, but it comes in the form of thousands of disorganized NGOs, relief teams from dozens of countries, battalions of experts and troops including the 82nd Airborne, all loosely operating under the umbrella of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), which, despite its commitment, resources, and cash, can’t seem to get a grip on the situation. After so much toil and billions spent, asks a female voice-over narrator, why is the country no better off than it was to begin with?
Good question, and a timely one; subsequent disasters, political mishaps, celebrity scandals, and pop culture and sporting events have long since distracted the world’s short attention span. But “Fatal Assistance” has few answers, and adds little clarity. That female narrator, an aid worker who came to Haiti and is now disillusioned, is unidentified and apparently fictitious, though the film never makes the dramatization clear. And Peck circles around various explanations for what’s happened in Haiti: the arrogance of the international community, its failure to coordinate not only with the Haitian government but even among its own relief organizations, and a lack of foresight that failed to see that in order to rebuild you first have to remove the many tons of rubble covering everything. And Bill Clinton, head of the IHRC, gets poor grades; Peck depicts him as a vain interloper thwarting the efforts of others. As for the culpability of the Haitians themselves, Peck has little to say. The situation is, in short, a repeat of the Iraq debacle, minus the war, and many reviewers have compared this film to Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight” (2007).
Unfortunately, unlike Ferguson, Peck drifts away from the bewildering mass of facts into a kind of tone poem. His film’s critical flaw is its pseudo-epistolary style, with the female Haitian narrator and her equally fictional male counterpart, a foreigner, playing former lovers exchanging verbose reports that punctuate the usual format of talking heads, graphs, and images of human misery and boardroom squabbling. The device is ambitious, an attempt perhaps to personify the relationship between Haiti and the international community as a rift between lovers. But it isn’t helpful. A sample passage: “Between obscenity and ridicule, history accumulates its burden. History exposes the futility of the international wizards.” Huh? We’re left with the opening images of faceless individuals obliterated by disaster, and little insight into what happens next.