Film review: Battle for Haiti and We Must Kill the Bandits

UN peacekeepers guarding Haiti's Electoral Council from rioting protesters in December
On Monday night at a Port-au-Prince hotel, a foreign media worker overseeing a bustling workspace for international journalists was called into the hallway by a Haitian hotelier.

He reemerged in the room and demanded everyone’s attention. The Haitian staff of the hotel were going straight home. Their families had called fearing violence would erupt in the streets, after a controversial speech by President Rene Preval in which he suggested he would stay on as head of state past for a few more months.

“If you don’t have private security with you, you should go back to where you’re spending the night right now,” he said gravely.

The foreign journalists exchanged nervous glances and some took their leave.

When I was ready, I left by bike to go home. The streets looked quiet, calm, normal. It seemed no such violence had broken out, not that night and not in the days after.

This is just to point out that fear of out-of-control violent Haitians is ever-present and often wholly disconnected from reality among the establishment foreign media and the privileged class of Haitians with which it mostly interacts.

The latest manifestation of that fear, in highly concentrated and sensationalized form, is Dan Reed’s new PBS Frontline documentary “The Battle for Haiti,” which lauds the United Nations peacekeeping mission and Haitian police chief Mario Andersol for waging a heroic but doomed battle against violent gangs. The film received an supportive, shallow review in the New York Times.

We Must Kill the Bandits”, another new documentary, seemingly destined for obscurity but far more illuminating, examines the same so-called battle from a radically different angle. It’s the work of Kevin Pina, a Creole-speaking American journalist who has identified closely with Haiti’s political Lavalas movement for nearly twenty years. His is a tale of a grassroots struggle, with gang elements within it, straining to survive against an intense campaign of repression and assassination by the Haitian police and UN troops after the 2004 coup d’etat against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Both documentaries have weaknesses, but only one acknowledges them. Early on, Pina says of Lavalas, “This is their story, seen through my eyes and the lens of my camera,” admitting his bias and limited view.

The Frontline film has no such humble self-awareness. The film opens with bum bum tchaaa Law and Order-style music set to dramatic shots of Haiti’s national penitentiary. For Reed, Haitian history begins on January 12, 2010, when 5,000 prisoners escaped. Inexplicably, one prisoner being interviewed is shown lying naked on his bed in the opening moments. The only imaginable reason is the filmmaker’s desire to be edgy and shocking, at the expense of the man’s dignity.

There is almost no reference to Haiti’s complex pre-quake history in the entire film, but for one absurd bit of narration. As the camera pans over Port-au-Prince’s slums and the music booms ominously, the distinctive Frontline narrator intones:

The escaped prisoners melted into the slums of the devastated capital. Among them, gangsters who once controlled much of Port-au-Prince. Now the earthquake gave them the chance to do so again.

The documentary is premised on this non-attributed false statement. When did gangsters control much of Port-au-Prince, a gigantic city of 10 3 million people, and who are they? I’m genuinely curious. Unfortunately for casual viewers who tuned in on the night before the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, it’s stated as unquestionable fact.

A bright spot is the way the film highlights the rape pandemic in the camps, interviewing several survivors. But it fails to explain much of anything about why the rapes continue unabated. Haitian women’s groups like KOFAVIV who say the UN’s humanitarian and peacekeeping branches have failed to address the rapes with camp lighting or competent nighttime patrols are not mentioned.

The rest of the Frontline film presents a predictable narrative of intrepid, under-equipped Haitian police and UN peacekeepers fighting against the tide of violent gangs. No camps are identified as having actually been taken over by gangs. No quantifiable rise in crime since the quake beyond vague alarm-raising by police (as they’ve been doing since the day of the quake about escaped prisoners) is described.

To its credit, Frontline publishes an interview on its website with the former head of MINUSTAH intelligence, who says the prison break has “not substantially, really” affected the crime rate. So why are they airing a documentary that hypes up the polar opposite claim without evidence?

Somehow there isn’t even a mention of an Oct. 17 breakout from the national penitentiary, which the UN peacekeeping mission knew was planned beforehand but failed to stop, according to a secret US Embassy report.

My jaw dropped when Edmond Mulet, the UN peacekeeping mission chief, says “Haiti is a nation that committed collective suicide a long time ago.” The “resilience” of Haitians amidst grinding poverty may be mentioned a little too often and approvingly in the foreign media, to the point that it borders on dehumanization, but Mulet’s offensive statement is too far gone in the opposite direction.

Haiti is after all the only country in modern history born of a slave uprising and has been resisting foreign influence ever since. With the UN’s apparent introduction of cholera into the country, along with dozens of alleged uses of reckless force (pepper spray and tear gassing earthquake survivors), calls for the UN troops to withdraw have only grown louder in the past year.

Inconvenient for Reed, Frontline, and Mulet, are recent comments by OAS diplomat Ricardo Seitenfus, along with a 2008 report in the Christian Science Monitor on Haiti’s reputation for violence:

“It’s a big myth,” says Fred Blaise, spokesman for the UN police force in Haiti. “Port-au-Prince is no more dangerous than any big city. You can go to New York and get pickpocketed and held at gunpoint. The same goes for cities in Mexico or Brazil.”

Pina’s film focuses on how decisions made in New York and Brazil, among other far-away power centers, to support a de facto regime with a heavily-armed peacekeeping mission after the 2004 coup impacted Lavalas supporters in Port-au-Prince. Large Lavalas demonstrations demanding Aristide’s return were met with targeted violence again and again from the Haitian police as UN peacekeepers looked on.

“We Must Kill the Bandits” stumbles at times when it shows dead men lying in the street and claims, without clear documentation, that they were victims of Haitian police – the Frontline film does the same thing, except it says gangs are responsible. I wonder if Pina could have corroborated more of his points with primary and secondary sources, which Reed completely fails to do. Of the supposed thousands of escaped gang members wreaking havoc on Port-au-Prince, Reed manages to interview only one who will admit to being one. Pina ignores accusations against pro-Lavalas gangs of violent crime directed at other Haitians.

The second half of Pina’s film, however, is excellent. The Brazilian commander of the UN condemns killings by Haitian police in the press, but when confronted face to face by another Lavalas demonstration, he angrily tells them to respect the police. “You are stealing our rights, commander!” the protesters yell back.

The film reaches a terrifying, graphic climax with the July 2005 UN-led assault on Cite Soleil, in which UN troops expended 22,000 rounds in just seven hours. Residents of Cite Soleil tell the camera in plain terms, over and over, that the UN troops are shooting up their churches and killing their families. Women let out blood-curdling screams as one cries over her husband’s body, “Let me die now, he was everything in my life!”

We learn as the credits roll that every major Lavalas leader, from the former Prime Minister to singer So Anne, has been released, with all charges dropped, after being jailed by the de facto regime.

If you’re looking for an entertaining, tense cops-and-robbers drama without regard for Haitian history or the truth, the Frontline documentary will do just fine. “The Battle for Haiti” is the work of a man who doesn’t speak the language, had never been to Haiti before the quake, with a mindset, common among journalists, that plays on long-held stereotypes exaggerating the violence of Haitian society. But like the rest of the establishment media, the film pretends to have no bias in its portrayal of Haiti.

Pina goes to the other side of the authorities’ guns and fragmentation bombs. It’s not perfect, but “We Must Kill the Bandits” is a valuable account of the Lavalas movement’s resistance to violent attempts to smother it after the coup (which itself was massively misreported as a popular rebellion). That Reed’s film airs on PBS and is promoted in the New York Times, while Pina’s sits on his website, is indication of how far the US media has to go in learning from its past mistakes.

“We Must Kill the Bandits” can be seen here, “Battle for Haiti” here. Two other recent Haiti documentaries I’d recommend are Poto Mitan and Filmat11’s five-part series.

6 thoughts on “Film review: Battle for Haiti and We Must Kill the Bandits”

  1. It’s evident that this Frontline “story” has no real value as a documentary. It’s basically a propaganda piece to promote the viewpoints of the Haitian police and the UN. Just as you would expect from the same group of people who showed a distorted view of reality in “The Quake.”

    Kevin Pina’s film will be the one to stand the test of time as a documentary and for it’s real presentation of the facts (the people’s voice/testimony, as well as the actions/words of the authorities) and gritty guerrilla journalism. Chapeau bas pou Kevin and Jean-Ristil, who filmed those intense scenes in Site Soley. Thanks Ansel.

  2. I’m sure the Frontline story doesn’t address the fact that most of these prisoners were being held in indefinite detention, never having seen a lawyer or charged with a crime. Some were also political prisoners.

    Interesting info about the breakout that the UN had foreknowledge of… did that involve the officials accused of the Les Caye jail massacre?

    Edmund Mulet is grossly incompetent and a bigoted racist. He’s got to leave Haiti ASAP.

  3. Ansel – I thought I’d write a response to your review as Frontline forwarded it to me. You’ve got pretty much all your facts wrong, I’m afraid. Here are the main points:

    1. The true level of crime in Haiti: Your conclusion that the threat of crime in Haiti after the quake was overplayed in “Battle for Haiti” appears to be based taking a bicycle ride through an upscale neighbourhood of port-au-Prince (Pétionville most likely, where expats and aid workers live in relative comfort and safety) and arriving home unscathed. As a journalistic method this has obvious flaws. An examination of registers at the City morgue and the piles of putrefying bodies in the badly-refrigerated storage areas tell a very different story. As indicated in the Frontline narration (at the scene of ‘Black Afrika’s murder) the documented murder rate in Port-au-Prince is a great deal higher than the United Nations or the Haitian Police will admit. The morgue figures for gunshot deaths alone, for both identified and unidentified victims (recorded on separate lists) fluctuate around 80 per month from March to October 2010, and the trend is upwards. This is more htan double the UN murder stats for all murders, for the whole of Haiti. These figures do not include deaths by stabbing, stoning (there are a number of lynchings every month), blunt trauma etc… I was interested primarily in the “morts par balles” which are often gang-related. Many bodies don’t even make it to the city morgue. Neither of the murder victims shown in the film were taken to the morgue, for instance. In fact Black Afrika’s body was washed away by torrential rain minutes after we shot the scene. The anecdotal evidence from tent-dwellers, Haitian reconstruction engineers, market traders etc… confirms the statistical picture. Crime is all-pervasive (even Pétionville, the élite suburb where Mediahacker lives, has had its share of kidnappings) and has increased dramatically since the earthquake. I suggest you take a bike-ride up the hill to Grand Ravine or TiBwa one night and ask the local people about crime and gangsterism. Take the “Route des Dalles” then head up one of the steep mud paths on foot, past the “sonnettes”, the gang sentries (they look like teenage boys hanging out, but check the automatics in their waistbands). There are no hotels up there, but you’ll get a feel of how crime plagues ordinary folk in Haiti.

    2. The prisoner “inexplicably” lying naked on his bed was, as indicated in the narration, maimed during the prison breakout. Moral Jean (who appears under the false name Ludovic Beaucaut Fils-Aimé in prison records) is paralysed by his injuries and the heat in his dwelling was stifling. The film-makers asked him whether he would like to cover up some more, but he declined.

    3. You ask “When did gangsters control much of Port-au-Prince, a gigantic city of 10 million people, and who are they?” Now, the entire population of Haiti is barely 10 million. Port-au-Prince has a population of around 2 – 2.5 million, though no accurate census exists. It’s common knowledge in Haiti that between 2004 (when Aristide fled) and 2007 (when the UN military and Haitian Police began to fight the gangs in earnest), large, strategically-vital areas of the city – Cité Soleil, Bel Air, Martissant etc.. were run by heavily-armed gangs led by Amaral Duclona, Evens Bois-Liane, Junior “Apupam” St Vil etc.. the names are well-known in the city and the era is widely documented in print and TV media. In fact there’s a startling documentary from this era: “Ghosts of Cité Soleil” which is not to my taste but well worth watching for an inside view of just one of the heavily-armed gangs of Cité Soleil, led by Billy and Tupac.

    4. “The film fails to explain much of anything about why the rapes continue unabated” – In fact the film does explain exactly why the rapes continue unabated: criminal gangs (including many escapees) have taken over the camps and the police (as Chief of Police Andresol readily admits in his interview) don’t have the manpower to patrol them. In the case of Cassandre St Vil, the area in question is the city-centre Champ de Mars complex of encampments, as you can see in the images which we have matched with her story. The same story is repeated elsewhere in the city, in Aviation, Terrain Accra, Jean-Marie Vincent etc… There are at least 200 large encampments amongst the 1000 or so that remain according to the International Organization for Migration.

    5. “the former head of MINUSTAH intelligence says the prison break has “not substantially, really” affected the crime rate” The UN’s statistics are way below the real figures (see above), and this point is made in the narration.

    6. The Oct 17th breakout was in fact stopped by the UN within hours – not sure what your point was here.

    7. “It’s a big myth,” says Fred Blaise, spokesman for the UN police force in Haiti. “Port-au-Prince is no more dangerous than any big city.”
    I’m perplexed by this, as the quote is from 2008 (i.e. before the earthquake), which as the Frontline narration indicates, was a period of relative calm following a crackdown on the gangs. This seems to reinforce the points made in “Battle for Haiti”, not undermine them.

    8. “The Battle for Haiti” is the work of a man who doesn’t speak the language, had never been to Haiti before the quake”.
    Wrong on the first count: I conducted all the interviews myself as I speak fluent French and workable Creole, acquired over the 9-month period spent working on the film (of which 10 weeks were spent on the ground in Haiti). The interviews used in the film are a small fraction of those conducted throughout the research and production period. True, I had not been to Haiti before the earthquake, but I do not see that as a handicap. In fact a fresh eye is often an advantage, and in my film I was able to take a fresh angle on the Haiti story (which usually involves aid and orphans) and provide new insights into the major obstacles to recovery after the earthquake, such as the lack of a functioning state, the development of a parallel “republic of NGOs” and the corrupt and moribund justice system. Unfortunately you chose to ignore these constructive points made by “Battle for Haiti”.

    1. Dan, thanks for your response.

      First off cool it on the ego-stroking “I’m a better, more hard-core journalist than you” stuff. I don’t live in Petionville or in any elite suburb, trust me. Never have, since I arrived here in September ’09. My bike ride was through Chanmas up Lalue a ways, and I only mentioned it as an anecdote to introduce the rest of the review. The Port-au-Prince population figure is a typo, good catch.

      Aristide did not “flee” in 2004, nor was the Oct. 17 prison breakout effectively stopped by the UN. It’s no wonder you made the documentary you did if that’s what you believe.

      I watched the movie with some friends. None of us understood why Morel was shown half-naked. The narration explains nothing as to the reason. You say you conducted all the interviews because you speak French and “workable” Creole, but you refer to “the filmmakers” having asked Morel if he wanted to cover up. Who did the interview – you or “the filmmakers?” Almost every Haitian I’ve ever talked to has been either shy in front of the camera or wanted to look their best. I imagine you could have come back another time, when he was clothed, to do the interview. Instead you chose portray the man in an undignified state.

      As to the rest of your argument: You still haven’t presented any evidence, between the film itself and your comment here, of drastically increased levels of crime post-quake or of major camps taken over by gangs. Morgue figures in Port-au-Prince alone do not demonstrate a crime wave in Haiti, I’m sure you’ll agree – presumably, you don’t say what they were pre-quake because you don’t know. None of the skepticism I hear in your comment about the UN’s figures comes through in the film – instead Andersol, Mulet and Gardner are quoted repeatedly as sage authorities on the subject of crime in Haiti who have no political interest in hyping up the threat of violence. Conflicting statements by other UN figures, Haitian opposition to MINUSTAH, camps that are relatively harmonious communities with citizen security brigades – these all go unmentioned. Your documentary is a one-sided look at crime in Port-au-Prince that conveniently plays into the international community’s political agenda as well as stereotypes about Haiti as a whole.

      Yes, there are powerful gangs, like in many countries. The most important question you could have asked and tried to answer goes unasked – where do the money and guns of these gangs come from? In all, “The Battle for Haiti” was a real disappointment.

  4. I haven’t seen either documentary so I can’t yet comment. But after moving permanently to Dominican Republic, my views and knowledge of Haiti are not what they were before. Haiti I think is one of the most caricaturized and stereotyped countries in the world. So whenever I see any work on Haití by non-Haitians, I take it with a grain of salt. Being from the Caribbean myself however, gives me that óptical view thatt only those of us born under colonialism and imperialism could have. Haiti simply proved to me, that colonial powers could be defeated by our peoples on the battllefield. Haiti’s destiny is the same as that of our Caribbean nations, full independence from our opressors.

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