Frontline: Battle for Haiti

Battle for Haiti is a beautifully constructed report on continuing trauma.

Frontline: Battle for Haiti

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Mario Andresol, Edmond Mulet, Jean-Frenel Beauvoir, Lamartinere Wilson, Nicole Orelus, Ray Baysden
Network: PBS
Director: Dan Reed
Air date: 2011-01-11

A year ago, 19-year-old Cherlie Christophe lost her mother and her home in the earthquake in Haiti. Now she lives in a tent in a public square in Port-au-Prince. One night, she says, a man asked if he might come inside the tent, seeking respite from the rain. He raped her, and then, she remembers, "He kicked me, down there. My periods stopped, they haven't come back."

Cherlie appears in the new Frontline report, Battle for Haiti, premiering 11 January. She speaks quietly, wears a bright pink t-shirt, and the camera keeps a medium distance, the edges of the frame slightly blurred, creating a warped, disorienting effect, inviting you to imagine -- however briefly and in accurately -- how it might feel to have your life utterly upended. "The police said," Cherlie sums up, "When you catch the gangster who raped you, call us."

It's impossible to represent the chaos in Haiti, because representation assumes and imposes at least a rudimentary order. For Cherlie and her neighbors, each day is chaos -- unpredictable, frightening, and beyond words. Dan Reed's Battle for Haiti respects that experience, and while it offers a version of Frontline's typically acute observations and wide-ranging interviews (with cops and gangsters, aid workers and parents), it also offers remarkable imagery, evoking the surreal life of Haitians now, a mix of daily horrors and bright sunshine, expansive poverty and tight quarters. It's a beautifully constructed report on continuing trauma.

This report begins with shots of the National Penitentiary, close shots of barbed wire and damaged walls at sharp angles; in the long distance, inside the walls, buildings remain. As the soundtrack echoes with the sounds of inmates' indistinct voices, narrator Will Lyman recounts that on 12 January 2010, the prison housed 4500 inmate: "Terrified inmates, packed 300 to a cell, ripped down the gates with their bare hands. Facing them were prison guards." One of these guards adds, "We were 17 to 20 guards facing 4000 prisoners... It was dark, we couldn't see a thing. All we could hear were screams, people crying out."

The result was that most of the prisoners escaped, and gangsters -- some notorious and many unknown -- have taken up residence in the camps, where they can blend in, take power, and commit violence without fear of reprisal. For, as Lyman notes regarding Cherlie's case, "The police have largely abandoned the people in the 1200 tent cities that sprang up after the earthquake in and around the capital."

Frontline follows a couple of cops who are trying to reverse that abandonment, as they head out in vans to collect escaped prisoners. They rely on informants (whose motives are by definition suspect), they pick up pretty much anyone who is unfamiliar. Given the dire state of Haiti's justice system, since long before the earthquake, some of those picked up will be released, and many others will head to prison, without a hearing, lost in "pretrial detention" whether or not they've committed an offense. The head of the U.N. mission, Edmond Mulet, points out the "appalling" conditions in prison. "They have 58cm per inmate and cant even sit down or lie down, they have to stand up like sardines in those cells."

One police chief, Mario Andresol, laments the similarities between gangsters and politicians: "Honest people don't go into politics in Haiti. That's our great tragedy," he says, "You have to belong to a closed circle of men who think only of themselves and who at times resort to killing." His own job is increasingly impossible: "We weren't set up to control these camps," he says. "I haven't enough men." Lately, kidnap gangs have been wearing police uniforms and riding police motorbikes.

The camera follows Andresol's officers as they search tents for weapons and load young men into trucks: the sunlight glints through the van windows, and prisoners weep. "I don't blame you guys," Jean Moise tells his captor, "You're just doing your job." An officer picks at him, hoping for a confession: "Stop that. Boys don’t cry."

While some of the men's names appear a on a list of prisoners who escaped during the earthquake, Jean Eddy's story seems to check out: he was released before the quake, or at least he's not listed as an escapee. When the cops cut off his handcuffs and prepare to let him out of the van, one insists he sing for them. Jean Eddy, caught between tears and joy, is undone. Though he does sing gospel, he says, "I'm a little stressed right now." The cops clap and press him to sing anyway, and so he does: "Being a cop is a killer job / There's nothing like it in the world / If you misbehave we take you down." At last, he steps from the van, his face turned up to the light.

The hope was that relief workers and U.N. peacekeeping forces might have helped. But they've been sucked into what seems a vortex of frustration and stagnation in Haiti, a longstanding system based on fear and corruption. Without hope, without employment or education, people depend on "handouts." As one tent city resident, Osée, observes, "It's economic power that makes you an adult. In Haiti, the system is so corrupt you remain a child." He holds a meeting with other residents, trying to track down how new tents are now being sold for profit. People are moving from slums to camps, imagining they'll receive aid. The camps, Lyman narrates, "will now evolve into a new generation of slums."

No matter how much aid money and effort Haiti receives, the lawlessness undermines all. Mulet insists that the international community is co-responsible for the "vicious circle we have been involved in for 30 years." Nicole Orelus sells food in Cité Soleil, one of the worst slums in Port-au-Prince. "We shouldn't constantly be given handouts," she says. "That's no way for a nation to be. We have to learn to work." It's a monstrous irony: Haiti might be defined by the work that needs to be done, but without infrastructure, a functioning government, or employment, no one can work.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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