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How (not) to Build a School in Haiti

Martinique, again: during which I attend the screening of a documentary on Haiti.

I write this as I am still in Martinique, having arrived on the 22nd of April, and I have less than a fortnight left before I leave. Last time was very different, with uncertainty being one of the main aspects of the trip – in spite of the many ways in which it propelled my work and contributed to my second stay here.

At the end of April, a yearly documentary festival was taking place at Madiana, a cinema located within walking distance from the Université des Antilles (University of the French Antilles) campus in Schoelcher. The festival, titled Les Révoltés de l’Histoire, consisted of a range of films that were screened over four days. I attended How (not) To Build a School in Haiti on Sunday the 30th of April.

Interrogating Aid and NGO Work in Haiti

[The trailer can be found below]

The documentary, created by Jack C. Newell, takes place soon after the earthquake of 2010. In it, the filmmaker follows a semi-retired construction company owner (Tim Myers) to Haiti, who (along with Newell) was inspired by an NPR story about the effects of the earthquake and consequent rice aid in L'Artibonite, an area where many depend upon growing and selling rice for a living. In this story, the presenters mention the difficulties met by families in affording school tuition for their children. The school is run almost singlehandedly by Enselm Simpliste, who hopes to be able to continue providing an education for his students. Teaching takes place in the room of a church, and NPR concentrates on the lack of funds for school materials as well as teachers' salaries. Newell himself admits, in the film, that NPR's story sparked the seductive idea of his documentary: following and documenting the highly important, and hopefully fruitfully charitable, project of supporting the education of children in a rural area in Haiti. The NPR story touched him, just as it touched Myers and many others.

The entire project takes a year and nine months, during the course of which there are numerous obstacles in the way. During the documentary, the viewer is given more information on the difficulties and ethical problems of building the school, tied to Haiti’s weak infrastructure and the problems that result from NGO aid in the country. Despite the well-intentioned idea, like others that underpin many NGO projects in the country, the concept of “aid” is placed under a lens of doubt. Newell’s documentary explores the ways in which this school-building project sheds light on issues rooted in exploitation - one that begins with Haiti’s independence in 1804.

A Caribbean Reception

The director added in a short opening, thanking the viewers and stating that the title itself alludes to the impossibility of saying whether the project was “good” or “bad”. Furthermore, he states that this was the documentary’s first screening in the Caribbean, which, perhaps, alludes to the targeted audience and explains the reception that it was given in Martinique. Whilst the documentary seems to want to shed light on Haiti’s economic, social and political issues following the earthquake, the reality that remains hidden seems to be less so for the Martinican audience. One of the presenters of the screening at the film festival was Dr Max Casimir, a Haitian doctor resident in Martinique, and his mediation of/ responses to audience questions was supplemented by members familiar with Haiti (one a Martinican nurse and the other a Haitian physically handicapped as a result of the earthquake).

One of the criticisms put forward that the difficulties of a white man coming to Haiti, in a supposedly charitable endeavour, was inadequately foregrounded. To one Martinican present, the racial dynamic is addressed slowly in the documentary. Though it is raised quickly in the trailer, the documentary does not go beyond this form of underlining, where it is acknowledged but perhaps not treated deeply during the Americans’ time in Haiti. The audience member expressed their frustration at the disparity between their understanding of these dynamics and the Americans’ lack of them. This leads to another question, obvious to those present: do the Americans in the documentary, for the many times that they state they are white American men, become fully aware of the implications of that in Haiti?

Another is the lack of light shed on the elite: whilst schools, like the one for which the building in question is being created, are very often unregulated and exploitative, the elite live contentedly with the benefits of education accorded through expensiveFrench and American schooling. For others, even though they pay for their children’s education, the idea of education giving the children the possibility of accessing a better job market is lost as these schools can be a sham, due to internally inflated grades that do nothing in the face of national tests. Finally, Dr Casimir mentions that the real American actions in Haiti (explored, for example, by The Guardian and The New Yorker), which, Dr Casimir states, were political, economic and military, were unspoken in the film.

The audience members’ reactions were not entirely critical, and several appreciated the desire to bring to light questions concerning the idea of charity, aid and what it really meant to desire to help someone in a completely different reality, whose needs are kept invisible to outsiders in order to enforce systems that exploit them. The documentary includes excerpts of discussions with others, such as Millery Polyné and Laurent Dubois, and Jonathan M. Katz underlines the self-congratulatory aspect of charity, which, it is implied, begins even before the act occurs, and even at the moment of seeing the image or hearing the story that sets off our desire to provide help. The danger is clear: could this documentary be self-congratulatory? By seeing it as purely a “good” film, are we participating in another self-congratulatory moment, this time based on uncovering new truths about Haiti’s economic situation?

I admit that I felt sceptical of the upbeat, fast-paced opening of the documentary: a “let’s do this!” attitude that was too simplistic, too assuming, an in-an-out operation where information would be delivered snappily, milestones reached quickly, action, action, result. The film slows down and changes tone, however, as it enters more deeply in the construction project. More doubts grow out of every seemingly well-intentioned act, exacerbated by the frustrations of a foreigner leading a project where everyday negotiations tie into much greater problems. By the end, I understood the director’s inclusion of the opening video, during which he also explains the discussions that took place prior to naming the documentary, and the way in which the initial title, “How to”, then clearly became “How not to”, and then reverted at times to “How to”. For, when the project revealed itself not to be a wonderful gift to the local community, the school had already started to be built: what to do then? And so, the director points out, even the title “How not to” still acts prescriptively.

No spoilers will be given here, as I truly hope that this documentary is spread more widely and watched as much as possible, but the film includes short statements on the afterlives of the people involved in the project, ambiguous in whether they continue a cycle or bring about change. And so the ending is unclear, leading us back to the beginning, where the filmmaker faces us and pleads that the documentary be discussed and debated. The ending of the film only re-raises the questions that emerged throughout the documentary, rather than answering them. As a result, the importance of ongoing questioning is placed at the forefront, perhaps, then, indicating Newell’s awareness that he, even in this film, could be wrong – that he may never find himself, and shouldn’t find himself, in the same situation of certainty that he had initially felt when he set out to film a man building a school for children in Haiti.


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