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school haiti church

Courtesy of Jack C. Newell

A Chicago filmmaker documents a battle for privilege and power in Haiti

What seemed like a simple international aid in Haiti turned out to be a long, complicated project to build a school in a rural town north of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince.

The construction even came to a sudden halt when a headstrong American contractor clashed with a Haitian leader.

The story plays out in a new documentary by Chicago-based filmmaker Jack Newell, who recently told WBEZ’s Reset how the film was inspired by a series of NPR/Frontline stories he heard in 2011. Haiti had been devastated by after a major earthquake the year before and international rice donations crippled the local economy, Newell said.

One of the stories in the NPR/Frontline series was about principal Anselme Saimplice running a school operating out of a church.

“I heard the story and it felt like, wow, if they just had a building, that could have a really meaningful impact on these teachers and the students in the community,” Newell said.

Someone else also heard that story and had a similar idea: Tim Myers. Newell heard about Myers when NPR did a follow-up report and Myers became a central focus of the documentary.

Myers, according to Newell, “actually knows how to build things” and decided to build a school in Haiti.

Joseph “Matt” Mathurin, a Haitian Creole translator who helped during filming, told Reset the school was important to the community because it was seen as a potential path out of poverty for its students. Children had been learning in “a very difficult environment, with makeshift small buildings,” he said.

“Imagine you’re in a room and you have to shout loud because there are other classrooms,” he said. “It’s only a thin board separating the room, so you can’t properly learn in such environment. That’s why [building a new school] was really right for them.”

But solving such a nuanced problem as education would turn out to be harder than Myers realized.

Jack Sebastian, another translator and producer of Newell’s film How [Not] to Build a School in Haiti, compared the country to a bowl of spaghetti at one point in the film.

The idea is that every issue the country has is like a noodle. Once someone starts pulling on a noodle or addressing an issue, they don’t actually reach the end of the noodle, but rather more noodles.

“The analogy is so apt because — and we use it throughout the film — it talks about the complex nature of [education],” Newell said. “When I even hear Matt now talking about the power of education, I’m bought in, like, that’s a yes, 100%. But it’s just more complicated than that.”

Newell’s film started with what he described as genuine curiosity about international aid, and what he could learn from following a project from start to finish.

“The film is about us pulling all these noodles... So you get an education — great,” he said. “But what do you do with an education when the unemployment rate is 60%, or 30% or 50%. So you have this great education, but do you have a job?”

Mathurin, the translator, discussed the friction that developed because of the language barrier between Myers and the construction workers. Mathurin said the experience taught him how to deal with people.

“Everyone with their own personality, and it taught me how to adapt in all situations,” he said. “Because it was not always fun. Helping manage a crew is very challenging.”

The language barrier challenge comes up throughout the film, but it was far from the only challenge the school-building team faced. Despite having the same mission — to build a school in an area in need — Myers kept butting heads with his crew and Saimplice, the school’s principal, because of differences in values and construction styles.

“It’s a film about the construction of a school — that’s inherent in the title — but it’s also about a clash of cultures... This film is trying to buck this sort of normal narratives that are told about places like Haiti,” Newell said. “We try to get into the nuance and show the good and the bad and the complicated and the hilarious.

“That’s the challenge when you go into communities that aren’t your own and do this work. This is going to happen and that could be true in Haiti, that could be true in Chicago and that doesn’t necessarily make that situation any different.”

The challenge of how to help Haiti continues today, with the country experiencing widespread protests after a hike in fuel prices. Residents in Port-au-Prince have been cut off from the rest of the world and are struggling to get drinking water, food and other basic necessities after protesters set up barricades around the capital.

How [Not] to Build a School in Haiti is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center through Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her@biancacseke1.

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