People asked me many questions after I came back from shooting in Haiti, with the most burning one being: How could you film so much death?
I had seen two dead humans before Haiti: my maternal grandmother and her sister. They looked like little hamsters and I could clearly see, through them, that the body is a shell and that the soul blows away.
The bodies in Haiti were frozen in silent screams of fear and horror, with mouths open and twisted limbs. Men, women, children. All utterly innocent in the face of nature.
I filmed twisted heaps of human bodies in a makeshift morgue in the Central Hospital. I filmed swollen corpses in the middle of the street while business as usual went on all around. I filmed an assassinated robber’s corpse, his eyes open and a neat bullet hole in his left eyebrow. I filmed the remains of a man or a woman on the pulverized steps of the main cathedral, accidentally almost resting my hand on them before I realized what they were with a sickening jolt. I filmed the ashes of a body burnt in the street and I filmed not one, but two burning human skulls.
The collected pain is a low hum that vibrates like a steel blade against your consciousness, and it is very difficult to press ‘record.’
But you do it because you are there, and because it is your job. You go in real slow, like to a funeral, and you look around, first pretending that you are not there for the death and the pain. But then you get down to it, you frame up, and you focus on making a good frame; a frame as respectful and, forgive me, as beautiful as you can make. And then you work in that zone until something inside says it’s over, and you literally snap out of it, stand up, feel your back aching and remember to breathe again, and your mind reaches out for something to say, but there is nothing to say.
After all, the dead are dead. They feel no pain. The living must go on, and it’s the living that you have come here to give your all to. You are not a doctor, not a teacher, nor a soldier. You’re a storyteller. So you go back out to the living, give them the frame you have practiced and developed over the course of your life and let them tell their stories, and then you shall see the greatest gift of all: beauty in the darkest of places.
Be very, very grateful.
The three-part documentary Inside Disaster, for TVO and Canal D, will air in 2011. To learn more, visit insidedisaster.com