mercredi 9 septembre 2015
Paul Haggis' quest for Peace and Justice in Haiti
Spending his weekdays studying in New York and weekends in the slums of Port-au-Prince, in 1988, Frechette attained a medical degree from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and had been working in the slums of the country's beleaguered capital ever since. Haggis, three years removed from the Oscar success of Crash and having just finished writing and directing the political film, In The Valley of Elah, was moved by Frechette’s story. So much so that he booked a ticket to Port-au-Prince and went to meet the the good doctor. “He just seemed like an incredible man so I decided to go down and find him,” Haggis recalls, a slight glaze crossing his eyes. “I remember hanging out with him all day, watching him work in the slums…
I’d seen poverty before; I’d never seen this level of poverty.” As night fell, the two fast friends retired to Frechette’s guesthouse. “We drank a lot of wine, ate a lot of pasta -- because there are a lot of Italians volunteering there -- and bonded. His stories are just remarkable. All the stories he’s done. “I saw what he was doing, which was so much for so little, and figured I had to do something to help.” Half a decade later, Artists for Peace and Justice, the charitable origination which Haggis heads, has raised nearly $10 million for Haiti’s impoverished youth. However, at the time, few in native North America had even heard of the nation which shares an island, Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic.
“It was very hard to get attention,” Haggis says of his early attempts to raise awareness and money for Haiti. “It’s the poorest country in the western hemisphere, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it’s just off our shores.”
“The Canadians used to go there, it was a vacation spot under [dictators] Papa Doc and Baby Doc and I think it’s a country that we, the western world, helped to rape,” he continues. “France, Britain, America, we did a real number on these people for a long time and so it was really important to me to start this cycle back.”
Sitting on a couch in the lobby of the InterContinental hotel in downtown Toronto mere hours from APJ’s Toronto Film Festival annual charity lunch – which will end with big stars like Jude Law and Alexander Skarsgard witness a moving acoustic set by The Arcade Fire, raising over $550,000 (U.S.) in the process -- Haggis recalls his initial fundraising effort, which involved Frechette, a man who spent a good portion of his life in Haitian slums, coming to Haggis’ Los Angeles home to break bread with his friends.
“He didn’t recognize any of them. He would say, ‘You know that attractive blonde woman there?” I’d say, “Charlize Theron?” he’d say, “What does she do?” and I’d explain that she’s an actress. The only one he recognized was Barbra Streisand, that he knew,” Haggis laughs.
“From there I would take friends down to Haiti and show them the work that was being done and that was when we decided to start our own organization,” he explains. “The donations that were being given through another organization, so much of it was being eaten up by organization costs. And I thought those were way too high so I found a way to minimize that.”
And then, at the dawn of 2010, the earthquake hit and suddenly everybody knew where Haiti was.
Shortly after news of the quake's impact got out, Haggis managed to get in touch with Frechette. When he asked him what supplies he needed, Father Rick simply replied, “Cash.”
Gathering $50,000 in a duffle bag, Haggis tried to make his way to Haiti but, understandably, was having little luck. Stuck at Miami International airport for two days, Haggis eventually made it to Port-au-Prince thanks to pal Sean Penn, who flew out from L.A. to give him a ride.
“I can only imagine what Dresden looked like after the war, and that’s what it looked like,” Haggis recalls of his experience after touching down in January of 2010. “So you see something like that and it’s easy to put that on a screen to move people.”
“Our main objective for APJ initially was to help Father Rick, it was more about creating a better health system. After the earthquake hit we decided it needs to be about education,” Natasha Koifman, a Canadian publicist who has sat on APJ’s advisory board since 2009 recalls. “We need to help Haitians help themselves”
With that new mandate, APJ set its sights on a new goal: to build the first free high school for the children of Port-au-Prince's slums.
“So January 11 is when the earthquake hit and on January 23 Paul and I planned an event at his house that raised over $4 million,” Koifman explains. The Academy of Peace and Justice was completed last year.
“There are 14,000 registered charities in Haiti. Over 12,000 of those have a mandate for education. Not one of those had ever built a high school before we came around,” Haggis, who drew the first concept for the school on a napkin, says. “We go straight to the people. We supply the means, the money. Our school there, which is the very first free high school for the children of the poor, is designed by Haitians, built by Haitians and administrated by Haitians.
“We let them decide what they want instead of being the neo-colonialists who swagger in saying, ‘We know what’s best for you.' Which is what most other folks do there. And because of that they’re really ineffective.”
Next up for the organization is an arts institute.
“We absorbed a film school down there. We got the money to buy a beautiful lot and we got money from the We Are The World foundation to build a recording studio, a recording school and an audio engineering school so we’re slowly, well, not that slowly, we’re putting together a technical school.” Haggis boasts. “And bands like The Arcade Fire (whose singer Regine Chassagne has Haitian roots) are involved."
“We are effective because we can make decisions quickly and act quickly” he explains, moments before heading out to finish the final touches on the afternoon’s lunch, then immediately back to Rome where he’s filming his latest film, Third Person.
An artist for peace and justice’s work is never done.