Documenting "35 Seconds" in Haiti
By Harbor Partin
October 27, 2010
Tragedy isn’t an easy subject to cover. Trying to respect those affected and getting the story told is a difficult task that often becomes a balancing act between fact and emotion. How do you balance being truthful with being sensitive? When does raw, unfiltered trauma just turn into sensationalism? It’s a dilemma that weighs heavy on the minds of filmmakers, documentarians and journalists when the story to tell isn’t just current events, it’s someone’s traumatic experience. Three weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, two filmmakers from Florida traveled to Port-au-Prince and the nearby Petit Goave to create a film that could strike that balance. The film, simplistically titled “35 Seconds,” is a collection of sobering visuals and inspiring stories told by Haitians who lived through what they thought was the end of the world.
“You see a lot coverage where they go in and have the white person talking in front of a refugee camp. We kind of wanted none of that,” says Dustin Miller, co-director of “35 Seconds” and founder of the production company Flesh Profits Nothing. “We went to places we knew the news hadn't been to and just talked to real people that were affected by this.” Miller’s focus on storytelling led to a film that contrasts with the fast-paced media coverage the world was used to seeing in the months following the earthquake. The carefully narrated madness and chaos so prevalent in the 24-hour news cycle is completely missing in “35 seconds.” Instead, the 13-minute long film that lacks paid actor narration, dramatic film score or any spoken English feels less like a documentary and more like a record of oral history.
Filming a documentary wasn’t the first thing on their minds after the earthquake struck—it just turned out to be the best way to help. Eric Hires, Miller’s co-director and partner in the film, recalled emailing a family friend, Ed Lockett, who ran an orphanage near Port-au-Prince, hoping for an opportunity to lend a hand. Lockett basically told Hires to stay home. “He said it was kind of crazy and it was best to wait a month or two till everything settled down a bit. There would be a lot to do then.” But once Hires mentioned the possibility of creating a film out of the trip, his tone changed, hoping their work could shed light on the stories he was dealing with on a daily basis. “We sent him some of our work and he said: ‘Oh, you do video? Come down as soon as possible.’”Three weeks after the earthquake, Miller and Hires, along with friend and artist Nathan Lewis, found themselves driving through the middle of Port-au-Prince, immersed in devastation and destruction. Miller describes the experience as “not believable,” coming face to face with Haiti’s new reality completely unfiltered. “It was just mountains of concrete and mountains of rebar. The buildings that were still standing weren't really livable, so no one was sleeping inside. They were just too scared.”
Millers and Hires spent the next week in Port-au-Prince and Petit Goave conversing with the people who lived there, Lockett and a local named Nathanael translating for the two. It was quite a simple production. Just one hand held digital camera and some conversations, but the stories they captured to film were incredible and moving. A woman told them how she had held her daughter so tightly during the earthquake she ripped her clothes. A man recalled watching the entire city crumble around him and another told a story about a little girl who was trapped in rubble for four days. Her family was preparing for her funeral when they found her alive.
With stories as heavy and moving as the ones they heard, Miller and Hires felt “35 Seconds” wouldn’t need much more than the stories themselves, so they decided anything that could distract from them wouldn’t be in the film. That included any narration or English overdubbing. Every word comes from each story teller, spoken in their native Creole. “We briefly talked about adding English translation, but quickly went with subtitles instead,” Hires says. “We wanted it to be just from the Haitian people, not anything else.” Another testament to “35 Seconds” powerful simplicity is how moving it is without the aid of a score or soundtrack. Instead of carefully placed music, the film relies on natural sound from the scenes of a recovering Haiti. The only song that is featured in the film is created by a child playing a makeshift guitar made of a plastic bottle and a rubber band. This organic soundtrack makes “35 Seconds” calm, quiet and reverent. Though the stories are tragic, the way they are dealt with allows the film to show a depth that simple sensationalism would drown out, the underlying sense of hopefulness and quiet strength the Haitians share.
Hires says that surreal calm “35 Seconds” portrays has much more to do with the people of Haiti themselves than film aesthetic. “They have a rough history of hurricanes and civil unrest and poverty and now this earthquake. They're super tough, super resilient people,” he says. “I think that by the time three weeks had gone by, they had excepted it, and for the most part people were going about with their lives.” The film shows that in the midst of rubble and ruin, Port-au-Prince and Petit Goave are bustling like it’s business as usual. A woman walks home through a pile of blocks and rebar. A man rides his bike past flattened buildings. Children fly makeshift kites made from trash bags and other objects found in the street. Friends are lost, homes are destroyed, cites are flattened and still life goes on for Haiti.
Last July, “35 Seconds” made its premiere at a small get together in St. Augustine, Fla. Nathan Lewis, who came along on the trip, displayed art installations created from the rubble and ruin he collected, and the money made that night went to buy tarps for those still displaced from the disaster. Since then, the film and Lewis’ art have been shown at the Contemporary Arts Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach, and also submitted for other galleries and film festivals for the next coming months, but Miller and Hires have put the film on the Internet, free for all to see. For them, the most important part of “35 Seconds” is that the stories get heard, and hopefully open up a conversation about not just Haiti, but suffering and poverty everywhere. For Miller, even the film’s aesthetic goes beyond art or technique. It’s conducive to questions and dialogue. “We made it so people can watch it really quick and leave wanting more or leave with their heart doing some thinking,” he says. “Hopefully people will leave wanting do something, whether it is in Haiti or with the person who lives next door.”