PART 2 – Algonquin College & Save the Children: Relief efforts in Haiti

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On Feb. 15, two students from Algonquin College’s Documentary Production program (Suma Suresh and Christian Roblin) along with four Civil Engineering Technology students & their teacher (Matt Philip, Shane Barteaux, Marek Szymborski, Brian Watson & John Barteaux) landed in Haiti to participate as volunteers and journalists alike.  Hosted by Save the Children, the engineering students were there to train Haitians in building Housall shelter systems, all the while being captured on film with gear rented from Vistek.

Save The Children will be using the completed documentary for fund raising and plan to air the documentary on regional and local broadcast outlets. There are also plans to enter the Save the Children documentary in student and other film festivals.


Feb 15:  Christian.
From Santa Domingo to Port au Prince

Got to bed at 2:30 am last “night”, up at 5 am this morning. First thing that comes to mind is that mountain of gear needing to be wrestled yet again. Groaning, I fall out of bed and take what I am sure will be my last shower for a while.

Great, out of that mountain of gear, I realize I have forgotten 3 things. Sun screen, shampoo, and a brush. I am a special kind of guy. Crazy glue, but no shampoo or sun screen.

No running hot water in this ritzy Holiday Inn either.

With hair like a mountain man, I wrangle up the gear (with the aid of the rest of the crew, of course), and we all saddle up in the lobby. Two shiney, brand-new looking Nissan micro-buses pull up. These things stand out like a piece of hay in a massive stack of needles when compared to all the other vehicles on the road. Inside van two we find 3 new companions. One is from the D.R and is travelling to Haiti with Save the Children on a medical relief mandate. Amber (the only name I can remember, as I am horrible with names) tells us she has previously lived in Haiti for 5 years, while the third man tells us he was in Haiti for the first two weeks after the quake hit.  I ask them how it was.

The both glance at each other for a moment without saying a word, then turn to me and say in tandem “intense”.

Just what I like to hear 🙂

As the rest of the occupants fade off to sleep, we take off into the rising sun towards Haiti.

I can’t sleep. While exhausted, hundreds of possible scenarios keep running through my head. Our driver speaks English, but not enough to hold a conversation. As the sun rises on the beautiful country side I start going over the camera gear. As soon as I pull out the HD camera Vistek was so good to donate, our drivers eyes bulge. All he says is “wow”.

Wow indeed. I haven’t had a change to check the gear to this point. This puppy is SLICK.  All the documentary students would fall in love on sight with this thing.  While finding all the manual “nuts and bolts” of this camera, it hits me that the higher level of innovation as actually gone into the automatic settings.

For example, both the sound inputs have automatic gain controls that actually work. If your sound source is far away, the gain comes up to compensate. Likewise, if your source is too loud, it brings it down, keeping the sound a constant even keel. It does this for both inputs INDEPENDENTLY, so the mic on the camera and the shotgun mic Suma moves around with are balanced. As a filmmaker (and being obsessed with sound) I can think of many situations where the use of this feature would be inappropriate. However, going into Haiti with none of the sound mixers I argued for, I can think of many MANY situations where this will be a life saver.

Vistek obviously put some thought into this venture. Good on Vistek – I’m going to treat their camera like I would Jimmy Page’s very own 1958 Les Paul guitar.

The country side is beautiful in the D.R, so I take the time to shoot 30 minutes of travel footage to contrast with what we see in Haiti. Around 12 pm we stop at a little gas station for gas.  SMOKE BREAK. Our driver holds out a cup and says, “coffee?” I say sure but have no idea what is coming to me. The little plastic cup of coffee he gives me almost makes me fall over. It is without question, THE BEST COFFEE I have ever EVER tasted.  I cannot express this enough

(It was like god had kissed me with a mouthful of scotch)

Some local kids came out of the wood work and started washing the vans, big smiles on their face. With a disapproving stare from our driver, I toss them some left over pesos from the night before.  Back in the van for the last stretch to Haiti.

1:00 pm

All of a sudden there is a massive traffic jam ahead of us. Our driver jabs his finger forward and says “Haiti”.

Streams and streams of Haitians zig -zag through the traffic jam. Hour driver hops out and urges us to come with him. Everyone (including myself) decline to exit the vehicle.

Then something happened.

A random Haitian man coming through traffic carrying a bag on his head stopped, and locked eyes with me through the windshield for a brief moment that felt like an hour. At was at this moment that I realized these people are not crazy armed thugs; they aren’t ready to tear me limb from limb at a moments notice.  These people are hungry, devastated. These people have been kicked in the teeth so many times before, and this was the hair the broke the camels back.

With that, I hop out of the van with the camera to see what I could see (and glad to see that some of my companions had come to some version of the same idea)

Only the pictures and video can describe it.

After making it through the border, it was like night and day as far as the country side is concerned. Where the D.R is beautiful and green, Haiti is dry, devoid of green and trees

The best way I can describe it in one word is: Sudbury.

Sitting at the front of the van I realize suddenly I haven’t heard a peep from our engineering colleagues at the back of the van. I turn back and ask them what they think. Matt says simply “intense.”

Smooth sailing (if you want to call driving in Haiti smooth sailing) for an hour to the very edges of Port-Au-Prince. All of a sudden buildings and rubble seem to be occurring more and more as we drive. I turn and ask our driver “Port-au-Prince?” He simply nods his head.

We’re here.

From this point on, it is difficult for me to put into words what I witnessed for two reasons.

Reason 1:  I let the camera roll the entire drive to our compound through PaP (Port-au-Prince from now on). While I got out of the van at the border, I wouldn’t even consider rolling the window down here. The entire drive was all pull zooms, angles, avoiding reflection in windows, trading video camera off to Suma (the other member of our doc. crew. More on her later, bless her heart)  for the still camera, and then back to cover from all possible vantage points. We knew we would only drive into and across PaP once, and we had to maximize the shooting opportunities to the fullest.

Reason 2: What we saw

3 pm – we roll into the Save the Children compound like zombies. As the large gate closes behind us I am dazed from what I just experienced. Then it hits me


We get the gear off, pile it up in front of the lobby, descend to the patio at the back of the compound, and finally sit down. After having 3 hours of sleep in the past 48, we are bagged. So, naturally, this is the perfect time for 3 hours of lecture/orientation from the various staff on everything from security to humanitarian programs to likely stresses.

Of course all of this is very necessary and important, but it is hard to focus and concentrate when I just want to fall off the chair. And, of course, there is still that MOUNTAIN OF GEAR to deal with, tents to set up, etc. The staff here at the Save the Children compound are all very understanding of this, and try and whisk us through the necessary info as fast as they can without being irresponsible.

These people take well-being very, very seriously.

Passports scanned, passes printed, security briefing over, we finally tackle the gear, find spots in “tent city” and get at the work of setting up.

Bathing is simple: buckets of cold water and a mug. However, this is a PURE JOY

(I have forgotten to mention something important up to this point. It is HOT. Really, really, REALLY HOT. Like… HOT. And HUMID. Really, really, REALLY HUMID. LIKE… REALLY HOT and HUMID. I spent a year in Australia, which was very hot. But it was dry hot. This… this is a whole other monster. Breathing causes you to sweat here.)

After taking an hour to set up a tent that usually takes me 10 minutes to deal with, we all zombie walk down to the admin. building for dinner. After hearing Miles’s description of the food, I am not optimistic. But, to my happy surprise, the food is fantastic.

The Save the Children compound is high up in the hills of PaP, and the back patio where we eat looks down on the whole city. As I eat, I can’t help but think of what all the Haitians down the hill are eating.

After dinner everyone packs off to bed like zombies… except me. I can’t sleep yet. I need to feel the earth between my toes, smell the air, stop, be still, and just listen and feel.

Having made my initial communion with the most basic (and to my mind, important) elements of this place, I make my way back into the admin. building to crack out my netbook and look over the pics we’ve shot. There are over 700 of them. Late in the evening I make my way to my tent anxious for the next day to begin.

… to be continued »»