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Haiti documentaries tonight on PBS

Here’s the review I wrote for The Inquirer on two of the three documentaries being shown tonight from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that struck southern Haiti.

Posted on Jan. 11, 2010

PBS remembers Haiti, with shows on earthquakes, criminals, children
By Carolyn Davis
Inquirer Staff Writer

Denick, 14, is one of the street boys profiled in the Independent Lens documentary.

Denick, 14, is one of the street boys profiled in the Independent Lens documentary.

Commemorating the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that leveled southern Haiti is no easy mission. PBS will take that on by presenting a bloc of worthwhile programming Tuesday night.
Together, the three documentaries, each an hour long, illustrate a truism of many crises in poor countries, including Haiti: that there are layers of problems, some existing long before the natural disaster, that must be addressed before misfortune can be reversed.

This is tough TV.

The Caribbean nation of Haiti is nearly buried in decades of troubles. It is desperately poor and ranks first worldwide in its death rate and 18th for its infant mortality rate. A recent outbreak of cholera has only taxed further a weak medical system that is buttressed by international organizations. There are few schools and fewer jobs. Politics, such as recent presidential election results that were greeted with angry suspicion, often provokes instability.

Pile on to all that the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Jan. 12, 2010. Its toll: at least 220,000 people dead; 300,000 injured; and more than 1.5 million homeless in Port-au-Prince, according to the United Nations.

At 8 p.m. Tuesday on WHYY TV12 and other public broadcasting stations, Nova will air “Deadliest Earthquakes,” which includes footage of U.S. geologists in Haiti soon after the quake as they try to determine what happened underground and the chances of another one occurring. While Nova is concerned with the science of the disaster, the two programs that follow zoom in on Haitians.

The 4,500 criminals who escaped the day of the earthquake from the National Penitentiary are the focus of Frontline’s “Battle for Haiti” at 9 p.m.

Among the escapees are some who violently controlled parts of the city before their imprisonment and are claiming new turf in the temporary camps where displaced survivors live in tents made of blue and white plastic sheeting.

Not only must those residents adjust to the trauma they already have suffered, they also are threatened by criminals, fellow Haitians who steal and rape and kill.

Frontline producer Dan Reed has filmed interviews with international aid officials who say Haiti cannot move forward unless the gangsters are stopped. The nation’s police chief, Mario Andresol, who barely escaped death in the quake when his headquarters collapsed, is determined to have his forces work with U.N. peacekeepers to impose order. That is hard to do when the head of a special unit to recapture escapees must pay for gas out of his own pocket so police can pick up some of the thugs.

Andresol understands that the gangsters are a scourge that becomes even worse when corrupt politicians and police team up with them. Residents are left to fend for themselves.

Young women tearfully recall being raped in the camps; one of the victims says police told her to notify them if she catches her rapist. The head of a family describes how he used the money his family had left after the quake to rebuild and restock their grocery stall - only to have thieves steal what he had bought.

The succession of horrors that the Frontline program presents, without mention of any of the kindnesses or successes that no doubt have occurred in the earthquake’s aftermath, is hard to sit through, especially as the middle of the three documentaries.

At 10 p.m. comes “Children of Haiti,” part of the Independent Lens series. Its topic, street children, unexpectedly offers some breathing room for hope.

The film counters the dehumanizing nickname the street children have been given: the Soulless.

Its filming began three years before the earthquake but wasn’t completed until afterward, requiring producer and director Alexandria Hammond to return last summer for an update and to stitch in footage of post-quake Haiti. It’s an awkward bridge to build, since the street children live in Cap-Haitien, a northern city that was largely untouched by the quake. Still, the film is effective in showing the routine hardships Haiti’s children encounter.

The challenges facing these kids are seen through the eyes of three teenage boys living in Cap-Haitien in 2007: Denick, Nickenson, and Antoine.

Hammond did well to identify Denick as the star and philosophical guide. Sitting among a group of street kids, Denick (no last names of children are given) says he would like Haitian President René Préval to help the poor earn a living rather than burying them after they die fleeing on ramshackle boats. He bemoans trash on the ground and envies students who have both a nice uniform and a sense of ease.

Nickenson has been on the street since he was 8. His aunt and uncle find him and bring him home but, like many street children used to living on their own, he leaves after a couple of weeks.

Antoine sniffs paint thinner. We see him with a rag in his hand that he constantly raises to his nose. His eyes are glassy and he barely is able to keep himself upright.

Denick has a mother and siblings (his father died on one of those boats), and he returns home periodically to supplement the money she makes selling coal with his earnings from washing cars.

He is wise for his age. Denick points to a scar on his left cheek - “It’s from someone who cut me for my money. God created me simple. I wasn’t made to have marks.”

Throughout the documentary, Hammond contrasts urban dilapidation with scenes of Haiti’s natural beauty - green, rolling hills in the north and a beach with cruise ships docked nearby. She also features Haitians who work to help the children.

Toward the end, we learn that Nickenson and Antoine were enrolled in a school for street children, but dropped out after a few months. Both still scramble for work, and neither seems to be back on the streets.

Hammond helped connect Denick to an environmental nonprofit group that gave him a job. In 2010, he had a new family member to support - a baby son he had with his girlfriend.

“What can I say?” the young man concedes sheepishly. His work allows him to take care of himself and his baby, and he draws confidence and strength from that ability.

“I hope I never live on the streets again,” Denick says.

With that, the viewer should be left after three hours of Haiti programming with the comforting sense that, in Denick’s case at least, hope may triumph.

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or

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