September 7, 2021


By Michèle Stephenson


Photo from the 2011 short film series Haiti: One Day, One Destiny,

Goudougoudou: Will We Learn from the Past?

When the 2010 earthquake — now infamously called Goudougoudou by locals — hit Haiti, Facebook was my lifeline. For weeks, it was how I stayed in touch with my Haitian family and friends from my home in New York. I have vivid recollections of people who we thought were missing, posting messages saying, “I am safe, I am here,” or "I saw such and such down the street, they are safe." Of course, there were also the crushing posts confirming deaths and/or disappearances of people we knew: leaders in the community, neighbors, and friends.

Meanwhile, mainstream media recycled the same old tropes: helpless Haiti, “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.” Disaster porn propaganda was deployed in service to disaster capitalism to justify its self-interested, shark-like interventions in Haiti, pulling at the heart strings of white guilt and unconscious white supremacist attitudes, which continue unquestioned even today.

Within about a week, BPM’s Leslie Fields-Cruz called to see how my family and I were doing. She also wanted to explore whether we might consider bearing witness to a different reality of the earthquake, one centered on Haitian mutual aid and narratives revealing Haitians' lived experiences and organic gestures of solidarity.

The result of our conversation was Haiti: One Day, One Destiny, 17 nonfiction shorts produced for the BPM web platform by our team of Haitian and African diaspora filmmakers and our collaborators on the ground. We arrived in Port au Prince four weeks after the earthquake. Haiti’s airport had not yet reopened to commercial flights, so we flew into Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and entered Haiti via ground transportation. The smell of decaying bodies, depending on how the wind blew, is still etched in my cells — as are the moments of laughter we shared with a seamstress set up in a relief camp. She was committed to sewing that wedding dress for her client because, as she said, “People still must get married.”

The stories we collected formed a rich collage of resilience, mutual aid and on-the-spot creativity and innovation — people making a way out of no way. Emotions of pride, deep sadness, anger, fear, and even joy filled our days. The reality I encountered was much more complicated than the shallow sound bites being fed abroad by mainstream foreign media.

Bearing witness to the sheer potential of the Haitian-led, on-the-ground mutual aid further heightened my outrage at the disastrous international aid that overshadowed it. Billions were used, funneled, extorted, and wasted. Foreign aid workers and NGOs made money and careers off the goudougoudou tragedy, leaving behind a parasitic structure of ineffectual international aid.

Fast-forward to the goudougoudou of August 2021 and it looks like nothing has changed. In fact, Haiti’s state apparatus is weaker now than it was in 2010. How does the international community explain that? The international vultures, now circling Haiti’s devastated southwestern peninsula, are once again ready to pounce and extract. How do we avoid a tragic sequel?  How do we learn from past practices when the very structure we all operate in is built to ensure powerful interests always come out on top? Changing the outcome requires us to shift the very system in which we operate. We can start by rejecting the idea that international aid is our salvation. Actually, it has our communities in a chokehold that we can’t escape.

For storytellers like me, the power lies in building counter narratives that move beyond just bearing witness. Our stories must thwart foreign narratives and attack social death. They must express our full humanity and document our self-determination — for ourselves and for our communities.


Michèle Stephenson is an award-winning, Haitian-American documentary filmmaker and co-founder of Rada Studio.