Learning from tragedy

The call came in on a Friday, late afternoon – can you make a documentary on Haiti in two weeks? The short answer is, of course, always yes, says ...
February 17, 2010

The call came in on a Friday, late afternoon – can you make a documentary on Haiti in two weeks? The short answer is, of course, always yes, says William Hicklin, SP at Pioneer Productions. But what kind of film could be put together in that time? Here, Hicklin describes the process.

We were already ahead of the game as Pioneer has a long history of producing both fast turn-around docs and geology programs. Within hours we were in touch with all the world’s experts on the fault line; before the end of the first week we had the main interviews in the bag. A huge benefit was the extensive in-house knowledge of almost every piece of earthquake archive that has been shot over the past 100 years. By day two of the project, two cutting rooms were up and running and assembling the archive into a rough structure; by day four we had the first interviews arrive and by day six the U.S. rushes came through.

From the outset we knew that to have a really good film we had to have someone on the ground in Haiti, an expert who could interpret the local geology for us and explain why the devastation had been so immense. We immediately knew the perfect candidate: Roger Bilham, Professor of Geological Sciences [at the University of Colorado at Boulder]. The reality of trying to get Roger and a crew in to Haiti began to sink in; after a call to Channel 4′s news editor, a whole new world opened up to us. Within hours we were hiring ‘close personal security’ (two ex-Foreign Legion armed guards) and procuring MREs (meals ready to eat). So at 6:30am on Wednesday of the first week we were trying to persuade the check-in staff at Gatwick Airport that 20 large bags and a generator really shouldn’t be classed as excess baggage.

The team finally landed in Port au Prince to a scene of absolute devastation. They had to be entirely self-sufficient, down to water, food, fuel, their own tents and a generator – every moment of scrambled preparation in London was worth it. The last thing we wanted to do was detract from the aid effort. Reports we received back from the team really showed the dreadful situation they had to deal with. The smell of death was everywhere; the second day of filming was briefly interrupted by the sound of shots as two policemen were killed in broad daylight less than two blocks away. During these moments, thoughts of what kind of film we were making – and why we were making it – became increasingly important.

There’s clearly an audience that wants to understand why these tragic events happen, but more than that we hope that a powerful film will in some measure get across the message that this was an entirely avoidable tragedy. Geologists highlighted the dangers of a major earthquake in Haiti back in 2008. For the people of Haiti it’s too late to include the low cost improvements that could make buildings earthquake resistant; for the millions who live in cities on active fault zones, it is not. The experts’ warnings still stand for Quito, Manila, Kathmandu and Istanbul.

Pioneer’s Haiti’s Killer Quake: Why did it Happen? aired on Channel 4.

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