Sitcom takes aim at danger, boredom in Haiti camps

2010-05-24 09:14

Actors sitting at a mock-kitchen table lift their feet away from a

very real, growing flood. This is the set of Haiti’s new comedy soap opera,

Under the Sky, filmed in the capital’s earthquake survivor camps for the tens of

thousands of people who live in them.

The episode was supposed to be about securing makeshift shelters

against the strengthening rainy season. Then things got too realistic.

After an hour of rising water and several blackouts, shooting was

cancelled for the day.

That’s one of the dangers of filming episodes in a camp on the

flood-prone outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. But Haitian-American

director Jacques Roc said it’s the only way to make sure the series’ message

will resonate with the hundreds of thousands for whom floods and insecurity are

now just daily life.

“There’s a lot that’s going on in the camps right now, and when you

stay in the camp you learn about it,” Roc said. “They have to adjust to this

kind of behaviour and this is what you try to show to people.”

Under the Sky follows a fictional family of five who – like many of

the 1.5 million people who lost their homes – fled to tent-and-tarp camps that

are now the standard image of life in the Haitian capital.

Combining comedy, drama and educational messages, it features

nationally-known actors such as Junior Metellus, a 35-year-old veteran of other

Roc projects. He plays Akim, the son-in-law of the patriarch Jean-Jo. Writers

are still developing the story as they shoot, so neither Jean-Jo’s last name nor

details of his pre-quake life have been revealed yet, Roc said.

They also have not yet said whether any of the characters’ family

members died in the quake.

The creators’ primary goal was to establish a middle-class

environment for the family – with the appropriate clothes, books and furniture

– to demonstrate how the January 12 disaster cut across all layers of


“Not everyone in the tents came from a low background. Some of them

had a house. Some of them still have their cars,” said Roc, who moved to the US

at age 14 and studied filmmaking at the New York University.

Each 15-minute episode centres around a core theme determined by

the United Nations peacekeepers, who came up with the idea and are footing the

series’ $6 000-(about R47 000)-per-episode bill.

Officials with the 9 000-strong force, which came to Haiti in 2004

in part to fight gangs, hope the series will teach camp dwellers about surviving

difficult conditions – and equally as important, alleviate dangerous levels of

boredom among those living in the camps and others making their way back to

broken neighbourhoods.

“At night time it (the soap opera) provides an entertainment and a

way of communicating information that’s useful,” said UN mission spokesperson

David Wimhurst.

The messages concern building safety, violence prevention, camp

resident registration campaigns – any of the dozens of dangers and challenges

earthquake survivors contend with every day.

The planned 16-part series is being shown on open-air screens at

more than a dozen camps, part of four-hour programming blocks that also include

public service announcements, movies and music videos. Next month, organisers

may use the screens to air Soccer World Cup matches in South Africa.

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