For all the glowing rhetoric about democratization, self-help, social capital, and strengthening of civil society, the actual power relations in this new NGO universe resemble nothing so much as traditional clientelism. Moreover, like the community organizations patronized by the War on Poverty in the 1960s, Third World NGOs have proven brilliant at coopting local leadership as well as hegemonizing the social space traditionally occupied by the Left.
—Mike Davis, Planet of Slums
—Alex, Murder in Pacot
There’s a dead boy under the rubble and a wretched smell in the air. In Raoul Peck’s 2014 feature Murder in Pacot, a married middle-class couple (‘l’homme,’ played by Alex Descas, and ‘la femme,’ by Joy O. Ogunmakin), facing bankruptcy in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, decide to rent out what’s left of their partially collapsed home to Alex (Thibault Vinçon), a white aid worker from France, and his Haitian girlfriend Andrémise (Lovely Kermonde Fifi). Taking up residence in their shack-like outhouse, the natives observe the comings and goings of the new couple with a combination of curiosity, suspicion, envy, hostility. At night, the renting couple enjoys loud intercourse; their audible chemistry only underlines the estrangement that has crept between the husband and wife in the wake of a tragedy that has taken from them their home, their servant, their adopted son.
Alex is driven to and from work each day by a local; the actual intricacies of his job are never disclosed. “I help,” he says. One day, Andrémise shows her landlady the photographs Alex has amassed during his time there: of him among Haitians, a savior amidst devastation. Vinçon plays the Frenchman as an earnest gap-year type: one can imagine him as the older version of an international development graduate, polishing his curriculum vitae with the default flash of philanthrocapitalism. Andrémise likens his work to masturbation; while her boyfriend is away, she hosts parties, and has affairs with other men. Speaking to Ogunmakin’s character, she renames herself ‘Jennifer,’ completing the film’s trio of Js (the married couple’s servant is called Joseph; their adopted son, missing presumed dead, was called Jerome).
Alex works for Beyond Aid Unlimited, a fictional stand-in for the tens of thousands of non-governmental organizations that, in real life, set up shop in Haiti following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake—which the country’s government reckoned affected three million people. The catastrophe claimed, according to the more conservative estimates, between 100,000 and 160,000 lives. This was no natural disaster: at the time it struck, the world’s 32nd most densely populated country—and the western hemisphere’s outright poorest—didn’t have building codes. The human cost, the notion that this was anything but natural, was assured: by a system dependent upon quick profits, slipshod building standards, virtually nonexistent labor laws, foreign interference with trade and import tariffs, and the insidious side-effects of global urbanization that has forced millions of people to live in infrastructurally and environmentally unsafe slums. Many thousands of those whose homes weren’t destroyed on January 12, 2010 elected to sleep in makeshift alternatives, fearing (with good reason) that remaining structures wouldn’t survive the inevitable aftershocks—52 of which were recorded in the subsequent fortnight.
Beyond Aid Unlimited sounds like an unintentionally futile enterprise: a description of Haiti rather than a statement of intent. The allegories that run through Murder in Pacot expand upon the savage critiques that Peck had advanced in an earlier documentary. In Fatal Assistance (2013), the Haitian filmmaker confronts the exasperating scope of corruption and/or naivety that characterized the post-earthquake foreign relief efforts in a more straightforward, nuts-and-bolts fashion. Peck operates, here, in a wry, informative, made-for-television mode. If organizations such as the UN tend to turn these catastrophes into paginated plans of action boasting slickly rendered charts and graphics, Fatal Assistance turns the aesthetic against itself: there are talking heads, there are onscreen statistics and quotations, there is catchy, upbeat music. In opening and closing sequences, Peck shows us surveillance footage of civilians trying desperately to outrun dust- and debris-storms in the corridors and lobby spaces of collapsing buildings. In an early sequence, we learn that Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, contained 25 times more debris than Ground Zero after 9/11.
If Murder in Pacot dramatizes, in microcosmic form, the layered, class-based verticality of a national trauma—there is an upstairs and there is a downstairs structured into its chamber-piece premise—Fatal Assistance pokes horizontally. It frontloads a dizzying amount of information: organizations, politicians, governmental departments, celebrities. The financial pledges came in, very fast, from all over the world—in their billions. But the point repeatedly emphasized is the fine line between assistance and arrest, between actual help and actual intrusion. If Peck wasn’t going for an overall accusatory tone, he would presumably have had to adjust his thesis in accordance with the evidence at hand. The film’s 100 angry minutes are edited down from 400 hours of material.
Were all of these things—the appeals and pledges, the billions of dollars, the consultancies and the arrival of competing NGOs—the outcome of a deep-seated racial prejudice on the part of international liberalism? One of Peck’s subjects claims that the central contradiction was between two equally sincere beliefs: that Haiti was in bad need of money, and that its own people couldn’t be trusted with it. One asks, meanwhile, when he pops up for the nth time as an apparently active player in these kinds of games, what it is exactly that Sean Penn does. As Andrémise says in Murder in Pacot: “Haiti now belongs to everyone.” (To which, by the end of that film, Peck seems to rather brutally suggest: Not Quite.)
Though he narrates his own Marker-like epistolary voiceover in response to the crisis (“Dear friend…”), Peck is wise to leave the meat of the argument at hand to Fatal Assistance’s interviewees. As on-the-ground witnesses, their scattershot observations help to corroborate a broader picture, and to ground a problem whose solutions are elusive precisely because of their systemic nature. Nevertheless, and understandably, the film comes very close at times to pointing fingers. As if having its own hand forced, in fact, Peck’s documentary seems haunted by the increasing appearance of the zombie smile emanating from a mouth the same width as the nose above it. The undead, post-presidential sagginess of that pale, mottled death mask: Bill Clinton is alive and well.