Conversations with the Living: The Haitian AIDS Crisis

The official blog of Conversations with the Living

Archive for February 2011

CWTL Production Diary: Day 51 + 2 Years

leave a comment »

16:11 EST: Finished mapping out the complete narrative last night. The process has been like pulling teeth. Even harder is listening to where the narrative wants to go, as opposed to pushing toward where I’d like it to go. People always say that stories tell themselves and the person(s) telling the story are simply conduits. I’d be inclined to agree. Throughout the process as I put more and more facts down on the page, I kept asking, “What is the real story here? Where is the drama? Where is the conflict?” I kept looking for the dramatic and the spectacular. We’re dealing with HIV+ orphans, community volunteers, primary caregivers, hospital administrators, international donors – all of whom are involved in making sure that every day, one child gets to take one pill that continues to save his life. In a larger sense, there are thousands of people dedicated to controlling HIV around the world, whether it be the elimination of mother-to-child infections or monitoring new HIV infections. Their work is unspectacular (by movie standards) and a grind. And that, I dare say, is the story. The unspectacular grind by normal people who dedicate their lives to long hours, little pay, and heavy emotional tolls. They are the working class heroes of the fight against HIV, not the superstars like the Paul Farmers or Jean Papes or Sean Penns or any other famous name you might know (with all due respect to them). The big names might have the big ideas, but all of the anonymous people are the ones that make it happen.

Too often documentaries focus on the spectacular, the dramatic, the big story that makes us, the audience, feel important because we are clever enough to be watching. But that is not real. In reality, it’s as contrived as narrative film (if not more disingenuous). The viewing public likes drama. Filmmakers like drama. The film industry likes drama. And as docs increasingly become big money-makers, it becomes more about the drama than the truth.

Sometimes the truth is mundane. That should not make it any less compelling.


Written by conversationswiththeliving

February 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm

A New Leader Ready to Serve the People of Haiti?

leave a comment »

I recently had a phone call with Johnson, one of our scouts on the ground in Haiti. He blared the music of Michel ”Sweet Micky” Martelly over the phone and sang along proclaiming, “I love this music, and everyone is loving this music”. It seems many people in his Carrefour neighborhood are playing the music of “Sweet Micky” these days – but what of Martelly’s inclusion in the upcoming runoff election?

The decision to reverse the results of the candidates included in the upcoming runoff election was announced a few weeks ago after the Organisation of American States (OAS) found the original election results to be fraudulent, favoring Jude Celestin of the INITE (Unity) Party, who was supported in his campaign by current President Rene Preval.

The runoff will now include Mirlande Manigat of the Rally of Progressive National Democrats (RDNP) Party, and Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. The runoff has been rescheduled for March 20 and people are asking the same question that was posed months ago – should there be new elections altogether?

The decision to reverse the results of the first round polls was met with relative calm on the streets, but the question of legitimacy regarding the initial elections and the upcoming runoff elections is a major topic of conversation among human rights advocates, political analysts and Haitian citizens alike. Many displaced Haitians and registered voters were unable to cast their ballots, and several candidates, even entire parties, were excluded from running in the race, including the Fanmi Lavalas party, a political party with major popular support in Haiti.  Even though the argument against the exclusionary elections was made prior to the initial elections, US and foreign governments supported the Haitian Electoral Council’s flawed process.

Now with the OAS results, although not accepted by the Haiti’s Provi­sional Electoral Council (CEP), the US and the United Nations (UN) welcome the decision and hope that Celestin’s exclusion will “clear the way for a more stable political climate and allow international aid efforts to be stepped up”, however many question the intentions of the US and foreign governments and criticize their interference both before and after the elections. Human rights groups believe that the US government used its tremendous power and influence to determine the outcome of the first round of elections and “denied Haitians the opportunity to express their will.” One can’t help but ask how western economic interests played into the support of the initial elections, how they are currently manipulating Haitian politics, and why the typical pattern of exploitation has in no way ceased since the earthquake of January 12, 2010.

The US has always used its influence as a powerful nation to get what it wants from the poorest countries in the world. Although the election results were in question, the final decision to exclude Celestin was forced upon Haiti, “literally under the threat of starvation.” The US has yet to manage distribution of promised aid to the country since the devastating earthquake and is using delivery of this aid and continued support to even further impose their will over the people in their struggle for democracy.

Even with Celestin excluded, most people are still missing the point – the elections were a fraud from the beginning. Many argue that the two candidates now participating in the runoff do not represent the people, and most would argue that neither does Celestin.

Haiti is entangled in an intense political crisis and Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy and Research believes, “This attempt to impose an illegitimate government on Haiti will backfire.” Haitian civil society groups, political parties, the Congressional Black Caucus and several U.S. human rights groups are calling for new, inclusive elections as the only practical solution to Haiti’s election crisis.

To make matters more complicated, the runoff elections are following the controversial return of previous president and dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier on January 16th, who has run into corruption and human rights charges. And more recently news that the Council of Ministers has agreed to issue a diplomatic passport to former President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been in exile in South Africa for almost seven years, following a 2004 US backed coup d’état has stirred up further controversy. Both men bring with them a history tainted with decades of political instability, civil unrest and corruption.

Aristide still has a lot of popular support, as he was Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, and said recently that he is ready to return to his homeland “today, tomorrow, at any time”, but has yet to return.  Some fear his return could upset an already confused presidential and legislative elections process.

Preval’s mandate has formally ended, but parliament has approved his stay until May 14th so he can hand over to an elected successor.

The innumerable issues present both before and after the January earthquake only fuel the tensions surrounding Haiti’s upcoming runoff elections. Democracy in Haiti has a long way to go, and her most vulnerable and under-represented citizens continue to hope that what will come of this lengthily and flawed “democratic” process is a new leader ready to serve the people of Haiti, but most, quite justifiably, have their doubts.

– LC

Production Diary: Day 43 + 2 YEARS

leave a comment »

20:21 PST: Well it is day 43 in NYC, technically still day 42 here in LA, but I have been a little silent for the past week, as I have been digging my heels in and trying to get some more interviews set up.

I want to piggyback on ML’s post from a couple of days ago about our phone interview with Tim Collie, who is a former writer at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, where he produced print and web-based work on the Caribbean and the Middle East for 11 years. 
He spent several years in Haiti, Israel and throughout Latin America. We were interested in speaking with him, because of his work focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean, which can be found in his piece AIDS orphans and an earlier project focused on the environmental collapse in Haiti entitled, The Eroding Nation.

We were originally introduced to Tim Collie from Aaron Jackson, founder and President of Planting Peace, mentioned in my previous post. Aaron runs a series of programs in Haiti addressing numerous issues, including a de-worming project, deforestation and a small network of orphanages, one which specifically houses HIV+ children.

Tim approached Aaron while working on his AIDS orphans piece for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and visited his orphanage along with the two other HIV orphanages in Haiti, the Comfort House and Rainbow House. All of these facilities provide housing, medical care, food and education to the often hidden victims of the epidemic – the children infected and affected by the disease, and a large part of our film’s focus.

Reiterated throughout our correspondence with the experts working to help these children is the fact that Haiti’s struggle with this epidemic will be a long, underfunded and under-recognized one, however they have made progress in the past and the children they have assisted have learned that they can live, and project themselves into the future – learning, playing and dreaming like all children in Haiti. It is these children’s place in the future of Haiti and the many issues affecting the nation that make this relentless group of activists, advocates and patients unique.

Aaron suggested that Tim was an expert on the subject of HIV+ orphans and that his experience and insight would be of incredible use to us as we continue to complete a series of interviews and acquire information that we will need as we approach our return to Haiti.

Tim was in fact a wealth of knowledge, revealing the lives of HIV infected children living in orphanages, in the streets and many times as restavecs (household slaves), with hope and dignity, while never losing the sense of urgency and painful reality of their situations. All of these children are generally denied family support and schooling, because of the stigma and myths surrounding AIDS in Haiti, and their lives embody Haiti – its past, present and future – they demand our attention and fuel the necessity for action.

The notes are being finalized and implemented as we continue to reach out to the co-founder and operator of day-to-day activities at Planting Peace, John Dieubon, and GHESKIO in order to gain the necessary access to tell the stories of these children and the network of people in Haiti working to succeed in the fight against HIV.

On another note, ML was here in LA for a couple days and we were able to meet up, talk a little shop and relax a bit. It was great to see him and I hope to get out to NYC soon to meet up with the other half of Conversations.

As always, will keep you all posted.


A historic view one of Haiti’s greatest structures

leave a comment »

The great prow of the Citadel in Haiti…

Written by conversationswiththeliving

February 15, 2011 at 9:28 pm

CWTL Production Diary: Day 40 + 2 Years

leave a comment »

17:36 PST: LC set up a very informative and useful interview with a journalist named Tim Collie who has spent extensive time in Haiti dealing with everything from politics to HIV orphans. LC did most of the interrogating. There are so many layers to the travails if HIV positive orphans in Haiti, from how they end up as ‘orphans’ in the first place (the Haitian definition is much more flexible than most people would be used to) to some actual advantages they are offered as a result of their situation. The talk drove home how much background work we still have left but also his much we’ve accomplished. In the 2 years we’ve been working on this, we’ve become something of experts ourselves.

Meeting LC tonight and tomorrow. Will be good to touch base in person. Also meeting with BH our sound man. It seems like ages since we did our first interviews at UCLA. Now where’s GC?

Written by conversationswiththeliving

February 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm

CWTL Production Diary: Day 29 + 2 Years

leave a comment »

12:00 PST: This post is a bit more about what keeps us going after 2 + years of work on Conversations With the Living, than what we did today alone.

I’ll start by letting you know that follow up e-mails have been sent in order to set-up scheduled interviews with critical contacts in Haiti, including HIV clinics, orphanages that house HIV+ children and journalists that have covered HIV in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean for decades. I hope to lock in the interviews by the end of the week and as always, will keep all of you posted.

We are invested in the message of our film and the people of Haiti. Communicating the story of the HIV+ in Haiti to a global audience is imperative, and we want to create, foster and continue relationships with the network of people who are dedicating their lives to the fight against HIV in Haiti and with those affected by the virus. We also aim to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Haiti’s people and to tell a story of hope.

While reading a piece regarding how the media continually builds an association of Islam with war, instability and repression, creating a false stereotype, I extracted a piece of the article, as I believe it speaks volumes about the portrayal of Haiti in the media and a lot about what we aim to combat by delivering our film in an objective and deliberate way. What is bad in Haiti can’t be hidden, and what is good in Haiti can no longer be hidden.

In a globalised world governed by the power of the image, the question is no longer what has sparked this event or that incident and how it has unfolded on the ground, but how it gets captured by the camera and reported to viewers, listeners, and readers at home. – Soumaya Ghannoushi

What the world sees through the lens of the mainstream media is experience through a filter; what is left out is the key.

On that note, what prompted this post is not just the notion of perseverance, but action with integrity. It’s true that if you care you will find the time and the means, and you will do it well and with respect for the subjects who are on the ground in Haiti, living the stories we aim to tell.

There are inevitably roadblocks, detours, immense obstacles, personally and financially, but at 2+ years we are almost there.

I remind myself of this everyday, and I remain inspired by others that I meet doing amazing work in their communities and throughout the world, including grassroots organizers addressing the worlds most pressing issues and policies; fighting for human rights and justice, planting trees, making education accessible to everyone, helping the homeless, addicts and the disabled.

These are people focused on people who are changing their lives and reinventing themselves in a world where they have felt invisible for years. Those that thought they were the invisible are being given an opportunity to live and give back in ways they never dreamed possible. It is this positive cycle that is the point, and yet resources are slim in every area of need – and so they persevere, because they are seeing the effects of the work they do.

Conversations With the Living is the same. The HIV community in Haiti needs attention, support and resources so that those affected can be engaged and accepted in their communities, and we aim to bring attention to this need.

Why are we doing this project? Why Haiti? Why spend years? Why HIV? Why to we care? In previous posts we have addressed the answers to these questions and our film’s mission encompasses the why – but the how is an ongoing process and we are making progress.

So, I guess this post is a bit more about what keeps us going after 2 + years of work on Conversations With the Living, than what we did today alone.

We will keep you posted every step of the way and hope you will follow us and provide support and input along the way.

– LC

Written by conversationswiththeliving

February 1, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Haitian women washing their clothes in a ditch

leave a comment »

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Written by conversationswiththeliving

February 1, 2011 at 1:37 pm