Haiti Crime: Fatal Assistance

02/26/2014 4:00 AM |

Fatal Assistance
Directed by Raoul Peck

This documentary could have been a feature-length rant. The subject matter—Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and the country’s subsequent betrayal by foreign governments and NGOs—warrants it, but director Peck, once that country’s Minister of Culture, keeps his rage just below the film’s surface. Shot from 2010 to 2012, Fatal Assistance employs an unusual fictional device: letters between a Haitian man (though they’re read in an American accent, at least in this version of the film) and an American woman working for an NGO. The former expresses his disillusionment with the situation and offers basic information about what happened to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake; the latter grows increasingly bitter. (Peck is careful neither to idealize Haitians nor demonize foreigners.) Yet the two characters never come across as mere contrivances. Their letters are well-written, even poetic in spots.

Fatal Assistance sees the work of NGOs as a form of neocolonialism—though it never uses that word—making the point not through dry argument but instead through interviews with Haitian, American and European aid workers as well as trips into the field. (Peck’s connections grant him an unusual degree of access given the film’s critical tone: Sean Penn pops up, as do the Clintons.) The money promised by governments and given to NGOs, the film argues, would have been better off given directly to the Haitian people, whose reputation for corruption is a racist myth. Instead, the NGOs wasted huge sums of money: we see newly built houses already cracking, letting in rainwater; one aid worker testifies that Haiti attracted every American crackpot with a crazy idea, like the one who wanted to build plastic houses. The Haitian man’s epistles express cynicism about foreigners’ intent to declare war on poverty or to rescue Third World countries from themselves. Peck’s movie depicts the destruction of his country while maintaining such a measured—yet unmistakably pointed—tone.

Opens February 28 at Lincoln Center