“As reporters, we were constantly challenged,” says Martin Smith. “How were we supposed to respond in the face of such overpowering desperation?” As he speaks, you watch Smith and his Frontline crew make their way through the streets of Port-au-Prince, past broken buildings and disheveled individuals. The camera swings from devastation to disaster, as he observes, the makeshift camps popping up everywhere: “Every soccer field, public square, and parking lot in the capital was overrun.”
In fact, Smith’s question is at the not-always obvious center of The Quake. Just before he asks it, the frame is filled with the image of a woman prone in the street, her face upturned and hand outstretched. “Hey, white man, give me some money,” the man says. Following, this shot, the program includes a bit of sound, a radio announcement: “We need to mobilize the community to respond to the needs of this country.”
These two fragments lay out the challenge Smith describes, as each bit calls for a different approach. Does the reporter react to individual pleas or to broad dimensions of an issue or crisis? While these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, they can take reporters in different directions. Smith’s account repeatedly tries to integrate the ideas, using specific plights to show widespread devastation.
Again and again in The Quake, Smith narrates and exposes a range of horrors — bloodied children, desperate mothers, doctors struggling to treat patients without anesthesia or proper instruments — not so much investigating as underlining. Much of what you see here is familiar from media reports at the time, only here, you see more of it: closer shots of amputees and corpses, as well as efforts to contextualize them.
The chaos seems clear. Over footage of broken windows and people rummaging, Smith says, “Supermarkets, bakeries, hardware stores: all were ransacked. It was an organized, collective effort in some places, a free-for-all in others.” In no place, however, was such behavior punished inordinately. Rather, as Police Chief Mario Andresol says, “We are not going to shoot at people trying to get something to eat.” The program goes on, past this rather sensible talking head, to show how shop owners “took matters into their own hands.” A man lies dead on the sidewalk, the handheld camera peering at his raw wounds and his feet, “still bound.” Another man, still alive, writhes on the sidewalk where he has been “dumped.” Smith doesn’t pretend to understand, but reports, “A bystander said he was making voodoo signs to ward off evil.”
“It was impossible to understand the scale of the disaster,” narrates Smith. Still, the program seeks contexts. He interviews nameless victims in the street and captioned officials. Nurse volunteer Witlet Macino recounts his efforts to save a pregnant woman in need of blood (“We had no pain killer to give you except aspirin and Motrin”). Author Mark Danner declares, “The weak, corrupt Haitian government became almost the invisible Haitian government.” And former Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis worries that the government did not respond in ways that were reassuring. “There was a lot of silence,” she observes. For his part, Smith describes his attempt to interview President René Préval, and the fact that he was introduced instead to Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. When Smith asks him about the anger citizens are feeling, Bellerive nods, “I am pretty amazed that the anger is not greater. I think people are supporting with a lot of calm, of a lot of serenity, the situation they are in.”
Bellerive’s lack of focus seems of a piece with Haiti’s history, as Smith explains it, a history of colonialism, exploitation, and neglect (with particular attention to the overthrow of French colonialists by slaves, in 1804). He speaks with both Hillary and Bill Clinton (he being the UN Special Envoy to Haiti), as well as Paul Farmer, United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti. All suggest the crisis brought on by the earthquake might be understood as an opportunity — to replace the network of NGOs who have been providing the nation with services and structure that are typically, in functioning states, provided by the government.
Smith and the Frontline team go home and come back, six weeks later, only to find that “the disaster was still unfolding.” While individual stories demonstrate resilience and fortitude, infrastructure and administration of services remain elusive. As the rainy season approaches, the tent cities and other temporary camps look increasingly vulnerable. Again, the reporters are asked to respond.