A Better Tomorrow
Independent Lens: Children of Haiti
Denick, Nickenson, Antoine, Michael Saint Croix
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
US: 11 Jan 2011
President René Préval, says 14-year-old Denick, “should put a garbage can on each corner, so when someone has a bottle of water, they know where to throw it away.” He gestures toward the shoreline behind him. “The sea itself is filled with trash. We don’t have the means to make a life in Haiti. It could take us 50 years to make a living.” He goes on to describe consequences of this lack of means: people who try to leave Haiti die at sea, their bodies treated like “piles of garbage.” “We don’t have any type of relationship with the foreign world,” he says. “And now our president, who is supposed to be helping us, is the one who’s throwing us into a hole.”
As Denick finishes his analysis, the kids gathered around him in the waning light applaud, and a woman who’s been listening pats his shoulder, smiling, “Respect to you.” A boy about Denick’s age laughs. “It’s not respect we need to give the man. It’s five gourdes in his hand.”
For street kids in the northern city of Cap-Hatien, five gourdes (usually translated as “the Haitan dollar”) is a lot. Every day is a struggle, whether for respect, food money or survival. As Denick puts it in Children of Haiti, “In the streets, life is hard and everyone must protect themselves.” During most of the filming, in 2007, he wears a striped, designer Yankees cap, backwards; his t-shirt is baggy and he’s got a scar on his cheek. “God created me simple, I wasn’t made to have marks,” he says. NIckenson, another boy interviewed for the film, adds that he’s heard that such scars have lifelong consequences: “They say if your body is filled with marks like these, you can’t go to other countries.”
The film illustrates the boys’ sense of confinement metaphorically and literally. The shots are at once evocative and poetic, mobile and limited. A small boy named Antoine appears in an outsized pink sweatshirt, posing like a ninja warrior: “Let’s throw him in the sea!” he says of the camera operator, as another boy watching him act out shakes his head: “I think they sniff too much thinner, it makes them lose their minds and do things that aren’t right.” The crew follows Denick walking past a patch of homes, when they’re suddenly beset by a dog: the camera falls hard onto the ground, its sudden sideways framing catching Denick’s struggle with the dog, which makes a huge wailing noise. The owner appears and accuses the boy of teasing the dog. The cameraman collects his gear and stands alongside Denick, his back to another camera as the crew makes sure everyone’s all right.
The upset is one more example of life that’s both unpredictable and always the same. His would be different, Denick imagines more than once, if only he could go to school. He watches kids in powder blue and white uniforms head into clean buildings. “They put their uniforms on and go to school,’” he says. “I think they’re more at ease than us.” He walks past a wall that shows a bit of graffiti, paying respect to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, ousted in a U.S.- supported coup d’etat in 2004. (The graffiti reminds you that Haiti’s hardships have resulted from decades of bad decisions, violence and corruption, both internal and imported.) The camera pauses on a trio of students, asked to explain the country’s history. They remember Columbus, slavery in the sugar cane fields, and then, as one boy phrases it, “more or less independence.”
It’s more less than more for street kids. Repeatedly in their 2007 interviews, they explain that their lives have resulted from efforts to escape—from abusive relatives or domestic servitude—that land them in patterns of poverty and distress that seem “endless,” as Denick says, with no hope for change, no possibility of improvement.
This much becomes clear when Children of Haiti turns to post-earthquake Cap-Hatien. A title reminds you that 1.6 million people are now “displaced, in a country where thousands of children already lived on the streets.” The interviewees are now three years older: Denick again laments Préval’s ineffectiveness, Nickenson has been enrolled in school and dropped out, and Antoine has no memory of his previous interview, when he was high. And Denick, now a father at 17, has moved back in with his mother, along with his girlfriend and baby. Supporting his family by working an environmental nonprofit, he feels his life has changed because, he says, I can sustain myself.” The camera watches from a rooftop as he walks on the street, his home for so long. He doesn’t exactly have a plan, but he has responsibilities. The film closes on a series of shots of kids posing before a wall, resilient despite and because of endless limits.