Disaster Docs

28 mins read

While these unbearable images of devastation, distress, suffering and destitution flickered across our screens, the wall of indifference was also deeply shaken.
Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean

This is not an article about Armageddonstyle disaster movies. Nor is it about the disastrous state of documentary funding. No, it’s about how documentary and docweb makers respond to more natural disasters.

The social shockwave from the magnitude- 7.0 earthquake which rocked Haiti had a profound resonance for everyone, everywhere. I felt it as a producer from Montréal, where a hundred thousand Haitian-Canadians live.

Natural disasters are exponentially increasing, affecting 250 million people per year. The world is suffering through Katrina-scale cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes; floods, fires and droughts; tsunamis and earthquakes, and the disaster of a natural world disappearing at the hands of human greed. Many connect climatechanging human activity with natural disasters. Nobody can doubt the impact on life, health, social organization and political economies.

Natural disasters enter our consciousness because of pervasive media and interNETional connections. Many documentary films are being made about such disasters. Recently, at China’s GzDOCS festival, I noted six films about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Here, I examine three case studies—one Chinese, another from Italy and an on-going film in Haiti—as a way to think about the impact of documentaries. I asked my participants to extrapolate from these questions: What role did they think the documentary form has in such disasters? To fill in information that mainstream media refuses to touch? What are the differences between mass media treatments, classic documentaries and newform docmedia? Should they propose long-term solutions to mitigate the conditions that contribute to such devastation? As linear docs transform into docmedia, I asked how they used cross-platform possibilities for content. Do traditional docs still dig deeper where ephemeral pop culture, social media and the blogosphere cannot go? And, as always, I was interested in the legacy of the work.

At 14:28 on May 12, 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake destroyed Bei-chuan city, in China’s Sichuan province. Among the deadliest earthquakes, 90,000 were killed, and 11 million went homeless.

Filmmaker Du Haibin (Along the Railway, Umbrella) arrived two days later for preliminary shooting, returning seven months later to follow up. The result is a powerful two-part theatrical documentary, 1428, a cinematic observational film, which takes us into the lives of a handful of survivors in the aftermath of disaster. It won the top doc prize at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.

The film is the flip-side to official coverage of heroic efforts. There are scenes of shared grief as a family looks for a missing child in the rubble of a school dorm. Desperate entrepreneurs scrounge for scrap metal wherever they can. Photoops are organized as government officials try to manipulate the optics of caring. A ghostly handicapped man becomes the leitmotif. Grievances emerge about rebuilding schemes and the resettlement of refugees.

Ben Tsiang
The film is co-produced by Ben Tsiang, who gained experience with SINA, one of the largest webnets serving the world’s Chinese community. Ben is a founder of CNEX, a short form of Chinese Next, a social enterprise for innovative documentaries, working out of Beijing and Taiwan. CNEX runs a non-profit foundation, festivals, workshops and forums, and regularly finances thematic, independent Chinese documentaries.

For Ben: “The Sichuan earthquake had a natural impact in China. It also affected the social and political landscape. 1428 critically captures these social-political aspects of Chinese society through the eyes of disaster survivors. Documentaries offer multi-dimensional aspects and a collateral monitoring of disasters. They offer grassroots, powerful statements, which can either be big-picture observations of the process of alleviating the disaster or examine the underlying social fabric, which can be amplified at such a moment.

Docmakers’ ethics and long-term endurance offer a complementary lens for a civil society. They catalyze the fair and justifiable attention that such disasters deserve from society. Hopefully, documentaries can offer candid social learning out of such disasters. This work has captured a vivid interaction among survivors and their negotiation with life and policies in a post-disaster town.”

“Currently, we use web-media as a primary promotion platform for the theatrical release of the film and the DVD. I believe there are good opportunities for web-intended documentary, but it has to go beyond simple uploads of footage. The supply side of web-doc work is easier than the demand side. Web production must be sustainable.”

Du Haibin
For director Du Haibin: “Disaster becomes a special backdrop on which the angels and devils in Man’s nature become nakedly transparent.

“Among aftershocks in the ruins, abuses of the collective system, lack of trust between people and local governing bodies, betrayal among survivors seem to make life more and more absurd. This is a reality that I did not want to see, that the mainstream media did not want to record. I could not help but record it. If we pretend not to see it, it won’t disappear. New seeds could be sown in ruined grounds, a destroyed house could be rebuilt, lost lives might be replaced by new births, but if we don’t have the courage to face our feelings, to reflect on our past, to review our behaviour, the limits of our human nature will drag humanity down. Time could soften pain, memories could fade, but a disaster may come again.”

From Zero
On the 6th of April, 2009, a 6.5 Richter-scale earthquake hit the mountain region of Abruzzi, Italy. Four hundered died and 60,000 inhabitants were left without houses. The Italian government set up emergency tents to host the population.

From Zero: People Rebuilding Life After the Emergency is a long-term web-based serial documentary, which also ports onto television. On the webnet, we negotiate interactively with stories from members of the emergency tent city: Nicoletta, Rosa and a dozen characters in 100 episodes (or more) of their post-disaster lives. As a pilot prototype, three months of professionally produced micro-docs were uploaded, in daily episodes. These slices of life can be streamed from anywhere on the globe, but the site also works locally as a community rebuilder.

There are interviews with psychologists bringing closure to the victims, poignant episodes of children drawing pictures of dream houses, a visit to a neglected backyard garden of a condemned house, a trip to a damaged music store under which is buried a guitar once played by the Beatles.

The project is becoming a long-term cross-platform doc, branching out as a global portal connecting a world of current and future disasters.

The Italian pilot is the test ground for webisode formats, production strategy and audience response and the first content for the global platform. From Italy to post-tsunami land exploitation in Sumatra, to rebuilding Haiti, the plan will be to follow the everyday lives of people slowly building a new beginning.

Stefano Strocchi
From Zero’s driving force is Stefano Strocchi, a docmedia producer/director based in Torino, northern Italy. A graduate of Montréal’s Concordia University, he gained international experience with Stefilm, the Italian production company.

Cultivating a passion for storytelling, he founded MOVE productions as an independent company dedicated to young documentary filmmakers.

From Zero was created with Al Jazeera English and Pulsemedia, an Italian multimedia publisher. It was partly developed at IDFA’s DocLab and Thessaloniki.

For Strocchi, the motivation for the project, “starts from the concept that when confronted with disaster areas we are usually ‘bombarded’ by news in various forms for the first two months; then, something else happens and the news ‘moves on.’ But what happens in disaster areas after the attention is gone? A long process of rebuilding, reinventing, and decision-making starts there. That’s where our stories are. The idea to use the internet is connected to the concept of ‘immediacy’— not the news, but the lives of ordinary people struggling to regain normalcy, as audiences can get close to them with a click. The webisodes are produced by living side by side with survivors and are uploaded along with other information, interactive opportunities, links and interviews.

“We lived inside the tent-camp with three documentary crews shooting and editing non-stop. Our mission was to stay with our characters until their situation would change and they moved out of the tent camps. Each episode had to be self-ending and complete as a single clip but also be part of a larger narrative arc for each character.”

The Italian Red Cross, the Piemonte Doc Film Fund, the IntesaSanpaolo Bank and Al Jazeera funded the project. Unfortunately no Italian television broadcaster would consider funding such Italian heritage stories.

Strocchi continues: “When the earthquake hit, I thought: ‘Imagine how many stories there are in those tents, how many people are trying to find a way back to a new normal life.’ In Italy, the news on TV was all about the political use of the response to the emergency, but no one was paying attention to the stories of the people, who were trying to overcome the trauma and to move on.

“I think the role of documentary can be crucial because I can shift the focus back onto people’s stories, emotions and problems, without searching for the big ‘scoop.’ We’re writing the memories of those days as they happen. By capturing those moments now, with observational storytelling we create a global collective memory.

“People can identify with their emotions, learn, reflect, compare and share. They look back and it is not news footage, it is the slow chronicle of a difficult time from which somehow we pulled through. When I first tried to convince professionals to go to live in the tent camps in Abruzzo, many responded: ‘You’re exploiting people’s hard times and tragedy…Exploiting the catastrophe.’ Which I did not expect as a reaction since, in my view, the aggressiveness of the news to get ‘tears on camera’ or ‘to interview the lady who just lost her son’ seems to me more like the exploitation of a tragedy.

“What I wanted to do was different. This is where documentary ethics and principles have weight. We recognize universal values. One of our protagonists, after watching a few of the webisodes, told me ‘I didn’t think what I am doing could be interesting for others…(now I see that) it’s not boring to watch…’ Yes it is not, not at all. Here is where the trust documentary makers have to have in reality becomes crucial in these types of storytelling operations. You’re looking at reality with a storyteller’s eye. You’re collecting pieces of the reality behind the superficial.

“By using the internet we were able to gather a great audience, without broadcasting. In Italy this means that we were still able to do what public and private television is not doing, because it’s totally lost in its political and commercial situation, without telling our stories. So we did it without them. I think there is a great potential in these cross-media projects for community based information and education.

“We are on our way to transforming From Zero into a global platform.

“It will be a larger and more interactive long-term web platform producing and hosting web series from various post-emergency places around the world. Years after an unexpected disaster hits, people struggle with rebuilding, and that is where the stories are—that is where we see who we are as human beings, with our instinct for survival, and an ingenuity that keeps us going, somehow.”

Inside Disaster
On January 12, 2010, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti killed as many as 200,000 people and displaced millions. In a country among the poorest in the world, the quake ripped the social fabric in all directions: governance, health, education, economics, and basic survival. The catastrophe led to an unprecedented outpouring of world concern and the artistic community rose to the occasion. Inside Disaster is both a webspace and a three-part TV series in progress. With unprecedented access, it documents the Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT) of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent disaster relief agencies as it overcomes obstacles mounting the largest single-country response in their history. According to the mission plan, When Disaster Strikes “offers a front row seat to the inner-workings of a large-scale disaster relief operation.”

Andrea Nemtin (Passage; Aga Khan) is a socially engaged executive producer at Toronto’s PTV Productions. She worked with director/co-producer Nadine Pequeneza and her team capturing stories of those caught in the aftermath. The doc team arrived in Port-au-Prince two days after the quake, and began to document FACT specialists as they assessed damage. Another camera was placed among the Haitian people, following individuals. Web producer Nicolas Jolliet and PTV’S Internet director Katie McKenna launched the first stage of the website, which features images, blogposts, micro-docs and social networking from the front lines. The film is being produced in association with Canadian broadcasters and funders TVO, ITVS Global Entertainment, Canal D, ACCESS, SCN and ichannel, with the support of CIDA and CTV. The website is funded by Bell New Media, TVO and CTF.

Andrea Nemtin
Andrea Nemtin: “I was interested in the subject of humanitarian relief. I felt it was an important film by a filmmaker I respected. A great documentary informs and inspires by witnessing and presenting events, people and information. Ideally a film will do all of that by telling peoples’ stories. This film will offer the Haitians we filmed a voice, a way of being heard. I don’t think all films need to offer long-term solutions but they will hopefully inspire people to find those answers. As a producer who works with point-of-view filmmakers I am looking to expand every project to include digital cross-platform audio-visual content. This has created additional pockets of funding and allowed us to have a completely different relationship with the audience. We are doing much more outreach. The benefit of this is that we are able to reach an audience for the film in a very active way. The drawback is that it requires a huge amount of resources.

“Once a film is released it really takes on a life of its own that reflects how it affects the public. I am hopeful that the film will create a broader understanding of the complexity of international aid, and contribute to the conversation on the humanitarian effects of climate change.”

Katie McKenna
PTV’s Internet Director, Katie McKenna (The Take; The Year Before) was communications director for DOCspace, the innovative social networking site for Canadian documakers. McKenna, who recently graduated from the London School of Economics, is overseeing development of the web iterations of Inside Disaster.

Katie McKenna: “My background is in documentaries, but for the past few years I’ve been working in web production and getting excited about the possibilities of cross-platform documentary. I was attracted to the idea of leading the web component of a multi-platform project about the Red Cross. For me personally, the opportunity was a perfect combination of content, form and great timing.

“We sent our web producer, Nicolas Jolliet, to Haiti with a goal that is simple to describe and difficult to execute: send us documentary content on the same turnaround as news media. Our mantra was: ‘tell human stories.’ Nico’s mandate was to: go to the places the news media isn’t going; get to know people, spend time with them, listen to their stories; and then create video and tell stories of how everyday people are surviving the quake, with or without help from government and NGOs. The news media often frames disaster relief stories in a way that makes the ‘victims’ of the disaster look helpless and disorganized until they are ‘saved’ by government or aid organizations. But one of the incredible things about Haiti is how people survived without any access to aid—for days and sometimes weeks. We wanted Nico to tell those stories, showing Haitians as survivors, community and family members, not just faces in a food lineup.

“The main difference from traditional documentary is that we begin the outreach, and create the community around the documentary, much, much earlier: on the first day of shooting, rather than when the film is done. Having the funding and tools to create these networks online is a huge benefit to the documentary. We now have contact information for about 5000 people around the world who want to know as soon as the documentary comes out, before a single shot has been edited. The downside is that this kind of work—building community and networks online—can be expensive and time-consuming. We’re lucky to have funding to do it early and do it right—most documentary filmmakers are now being expected to do the same thing in their ‘free time’.

“Our website will allow viewers to understand how reconstruction unfolds in the long term, and get updates on characters they’ve met through the series. The webspace allows viewers to ‘step into the shoes’ of Red Cross workers, journalists and earthquake survivors through an expertly designed and researched interactive ‘experience’.

“With the website, our plan was always to tell short documentary stories that would create their own second life, and wouldn’t expire the way news content often does.”

Nadine Pequeneza
Inside Disaster’s director and co-producer Nadine Pequeneza has 15 years of cross-genre experience in the independent production industry, directing, writing and producing docs, docudrama, process films and biography such as Raising Cassidy and Women Behind the Badge.

Nadine Pequeneza: “The increasing number and severity of natural disasters has been accompanied by a growing emergency response worldwide from both agencies and individuals. How the world community can respond effectively to bigger and more numerous disasters is the focus of our film. By nature, documentary has the ability to take a longer view of events, and tackle the more profound issues surrounding both the causes of disaster and our response. With Inside Disaster our aim is to provide personal stories, an archival record, and thoughtful analysis of the issues surrounding humanitarian aid and disaster risk management. As documentarians we have a responsibility to encourage a deeper understanding of events that garner so much world attention and so little analysis.

“On the website, Nico’s posts have a distinctive flavour. His blogs are a fine example of first-person journalism, something we see very little of today. I am curious to see whether people will have a hard time differentiating between the web posts and the documentary, or whether this even matters. I hope that Inside Disaster makes people aware of how much we can do to mitigate human suffering in natural disasters. Too many people believe we can only react, but there is so much more we can do.”

Haiti – The Ciné Institute
Finally, as a coda, an inspirational project in Haiti: The Ciné Institute, the country’s de-facto national film school. It is based in Jacmel, the hometown of Canada’s Governor-General, which was partially destroyed in the quake. The Ciné Institute has provided Haitian youth with film education and production support. Over the years, founder David Belle and Ciné Lekòl’s Director Andrew Bigosinski have attracted some of the world’s best filmmakers.

Canada’s Paul Haggis is on the Institute’s Board, Denmark’s Jorgen Leth and US docactivist Jonathan Stack have taught there.

Unfortunately, the Institute’s building was destroyed in the earthquake and friends were lost. Despite such adversity, in the spirit of persistent vision, the students were able to dig their cameras out of the rubble and continue to work. Their grassroots views, blogs and webvideo documents, from the Haitian mediamaker perspective, show how hope can rise like a phoenix from the rubble. In the wake of the disaster, the students were given the incredible opportunity to edit, with director Haggis, the remake of “We are the World” in support of relief for Haiti. Their on-going work, which needs international support, can be seen on their website.

Simon Winchester wrote in A Crack in the Edge of the World about the impact of the Great California Earthquake of 1906. In it he posits that those who believe in the Gaia principle might think that “the (tectonic) plates shifting against one another are all interconnected, jostlings on one part of the planet’s surface might well create sympathetic movements elsewhere.” I believe that our interconnected world is now experiencing another kind of sympathetic movement, one brought to us by the potential of the docmedia—both films and websites—showcased here. These works allow us an opportunity to change empathy into action. Generated by human souls, a documentary movement radiates out, rippling through our hearts, like puddle rings of compassion.

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