Battle for Haiti (2011)

Rating: FR.Battle for HaitiBattle for Haiti is the first episode of the 29th season of the PBS documentary series Frontline, and it details the disintegration of Haitian society in the year since the Caribbean nation was hit by a massive earthquake on the 10th of January, 2010.

Only a few years before this event, Haiti underwent a revolution following decades of dictatorship. The political situation was entirely tenuous since then, and the earthquake undermined an already fragile, fledgling government. In short, the country has experienced a nearly complete breakdown of law and order.

The documentary is focused on events within the capitol city Port-au-Prince, in which much of the the infrastructure was destroyed outright. This forced the majority of its residents into to relocate, not to the countryside, but to improvised tent camps around the city itself.

battle_for_haiti_02The national penitentiary housed something in the neighborhood of 4500 criminals at the time of the quake, the majority of whom simply wandered back out into the street once the compound was structurally compromised. Many of these criminals were gangsters who were somewhat quicker in establishing a social order within the tent camps than were the police. These gangsters proceeded to rape women, beat or kill men, and generally exploit the comparatively peaceful inhabitants of the camps as a matter of course.

What remains of the Haitian police force makes occasional forays into the camps to retrieve what they perceive to be the very worst of the gangsters. They are mostly ineffectual, however, and more often than not are only distinguishable from the gangsters by their bedraggled and mismatched uniforms.

battle_for_haiti_03Local officials have collectively shrugged their shoulders in the face of corruption, poor organization, and a lack of resources, and seem to be entirely reliant to the blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers to maintain any substantial sense of order.

It might be easy for people sitting in the United States to dismiss the state of affairs in Haiti as symptomatic of the third world backwardness of the country. Under the right circumstances, in a crisis of sufficient magnitude, law and order can be suspended pretty much anywhere. Documentaries like After Armageddon have tried to construct an imagined post-apocalyptic world in the United States. Battle for Haiti is a thoughtfully presented examination of what actually does happen in the absence of the rule of law, and should be instructive to anyone preparing for a potential disaster.

Tremors (1990)

Rating: FR.

Burt and Heather Gummer

Burt and Heather Gummer

There is one reason to watch Tremors, and that reason is:

The Gummers!

Burt (Michael Gross) and Heather Gummer (Reba McEntire) are the quintessential, fringe-dwelling, paranoiac prepping couple. They’re a caricature of a couple designed for a B movie, but they’re also quite possibly the most entertaining version of the pair we may know, or even be a part of,  in real life.

When their podunk mining town in the desert is besieged by giant space slugs or something, the wisdom of their paranoia is suddenly obvious. As the other podunk townsfolk climb up telephone poles and engage in a string of Wile E. Coyote type schemes to outwit the slugs, Burt and Heather calmly retreat to their bomb shelter, arsenal and rec room and get ready to go slug hunting.

Broke into the wrong god damned rec room, didn't you, you bastard!

“Broke into the wrong god damned rec room, didn’t you, you bastard!”

In the end even the best laid plans can’t be perfect, and the couple’s castle in the sand more or less falls short. As Burt puts it:

Food for five years, a thousand gallons of gas, air filtration, water filtration, Geiger counter, bomb shelter… underground, god damned monsters.

You can’t be prepared for everything, folks, but you can damned well try!

In the general world of cult “horror” films, Tremors isn’t bad. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward head up a cast of fairly able second stringers as townspeople. The story line is decent, and the special effects are passable. The Gummers are a deal clincher for the survival-minded viewer, and should put this one on every prepper’s list.

Commune (2005)

Rating: WTF?Commune takes us inside the Black Bear Ranch, a utopian hippy commune someplace out in the sticks in California in the 1960’s. Most of the information is drawn from archival footage and the reflections of the now aging hippies themselves, who have long since left the commune to pursue more individualistic hippy life-trajectories.

While I can understand the impulse that might drive one off into the woods in the hills, a flight from the oppressive capitalist superstructure into the arms of an oppressive collectivist commune is, charitably speaking, counterintuitive.


Commune basically confirms every stereotype of hippies as self-absorbed malcontents that anyone in the mainstream might tend to harbor. Jonathan Berman is the producer, writer and director, and he is in no way to blame for the apparently negative portrayal. This is not a hatchet job. The interviewees are allowed to look stupid, insane, and absurd on their own terms and in their own words.

There’s a lot of running around naked with goats, and toothbrush sharing that goes on in the film. The participants in the commune get so wrapped up in cogitating on the collapse of the military-industrial complex that they let the goats raise their kids for a while. A freaky cult turns up at some point and some of the hippy kids got exported to India or someplace for some reason best not speculated on. Then the hippies got all bent out of shape and kicked the cult guys out. All-in-all, Melissa Harris-Perry would do well to study this example of collective childcare.

In among all of that insanity, the hippies somehow survived way up there in the mountains. As it will do, living in the margins of society imposed a practical sort of reality on even the most hard-headed of the bunch. In the words of former commune occupant Creek Hanauer, everyone had to “basically chop wood, haul water, cook food, or become a dead Zen guy.”  And that was truly the only redeeming feature of this particular commune experiment insofar as I could tell.

By all means, do check it out if you find old hippies entertaining, or if you just want the to see a stack of freaky, leftist ideology driven full force into the California wilderness. I can’t say that Commune is uninteresting, but I can say that it is ridiculous.

20 Years After (2008)

Rating: WTF?20 Years After starts off as an interesting construction of the apocalypse. Some guy, Michael, is broadcasting over the shortwave to an apparently barren and irradiated landscape somewhere in the former U.S.A. The last pregnant girl turns up, living in a burned-out basement with her mother. They all go on an adventure to find some other guy who’s broadcasting across the desolate, irradiated landscape with a crazy old retired history professor with a melted ear. I’m on board to this point.

Creepy witch with poisonous scissors.

Creepy witch with poisonous scissors.

Then it gets weird in the 20 Years After universe. The crazy old ex-history professor turns out to be magical. Then there’s a magical witch living somewhere deep in an old industrial complex. The magical witch runs around poisoning people and scheming to thieve the world’s last baby away from the world’s last pregnant girl. I don’t get that bit at all. Stealing babies in the apocalypse is completely beyond me. There’s more to it than that, but that’s enough to give you an idea of the general weirdness of this piece of work.

All things considered, the post-apocalyptic landscape is fairly convincing. There are a few scenes in the first half of the film that give you that inspiring TEOTWAWKI kind of feeling. The actors are fairly watchable, if not entirely interesting. If you’re really jonesing for an end of the world flick that you haven’t seen, 20 Years After might fit the bill in the moment.

On the other hand, the people responsible for this flick (Jim Torres and Ron Harris, I suppose) have committed one of the most egregious atrocities in the apocalyptic genre: they’ve turned Armageddon into a faerie tale. The 1994 miniseries The Stand, based on the Stephen King novel, was guilty of exactly the same thing, but with better actors, writing, and direction. There’s no brave new world in 20 Years After. It’s a small story which breaks the rules of the genre and comes out the worse for the effort.

The U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76

FM 21-76

FM 21-76

I picked up the hardcover version of the U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76 for about $10 in the clearance pile of a major bookstore, and I must say that this book is brilliant. It’s not the only survival guide you’ll ever need, nor is it best survival guide that you could possibly find. What it is, is a starting point for every 19 year-old who was scooped up out of a random city block, and might be dumped into a jungle, desert, ocean, or snow bank in the next six months.

The breadth of the content covered is remarkable. The writers have tried to literally talk about everything that you might need to know in a survival situation, from ways to not be so cold and wet, to elementary mongoose catching. The table of contents reveals seventeen chapters which include, but are not limited to the following topics: medicine, tool-making, water, fire, shelter, food, and guides to specific environments. Four appendices offer color photographs of plants, weather indicators, and poisonous snakes.

Figure 7.1 from the FM 21-76

Figure 7.1 from the FM 21-76

The information presented in each chapter is, no doubt, based on the decades of experience accumulated by soldiers in the field. I am admittedly not a wilderness expert, but can say that every suggestion seems entirely plausible to me, and that the authors have thought of things that might never have occurred to me. There are detailed instructions, for example, on the construction of a gill net for fishing, in addition to four other means of trapping fish, five types of hooks and four types of fishing spear. One person, even a clever person is not likely to come up with twelve possible solutions to one problem in a stressful situation, and that is a major strength of the manual.

There are deficiencies in this work, of course, most of which are unavoidable given its purpose. The authors have presented useful ideas, but occasionally sacrificed some important detail in order to keep the explanations simple. The section on “field expedient weapons,” for example, presents an illustrated guide to stone tool manufacture without any discussion of suitable materials. I can unfortunately say from experience that trying to make a useful tool form the wrong rock, and most rocks are wrong, can be a frustrating and dangerous waste of energy. Still, it’s probably better to have the idea than to have no idea at all.

The final selling point for me, and one likely underappreciated by both the producers of the manual and its intended audience, is its sheer entertainment value. The terse, and sometimes brutal, prose of military technical writing at times drifts into comedic genius. I submit as an example one entry form a bulleted list on catching small animals:

“Beaver – Wait for the beaver to come on land, then club it, drop-kick it, hit it with a rock, or catch it by the tail. It is a sturdy animal, so if you catch it by the tail, swing it in a pendulum motion until it begins to relax, then swing it against a tree or the ground or use a noose to kill it. Another way to get a beaver is to dig out the beaver dam so the water drains. The beaver will come to inspect the damage at which time you can straddle the channel and grab the beaver by its tail as it swims through. Immediately start to swing the beaver as above. CAUTION: Take care to keep it from biting you. Its bite will leave a large wound.”

Picture a tentative Joe-Jack from Brooklyn, compelled by hunger to temporarily disregard the welfare of what he thinks might be a beaver (there’s no clear picture of one), straddling a brook and pondering the execution of any one of the recommended maneuvers. If that doesn’t cheer you up… well, it’s still a pretty useful book

Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment

Rating: FY!You can’t believe anything that you see on TV, but I’m willing to take a leap of faith on this one and say that it seems pretty real for a reality show. With this underlying assumption I can say that Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment is kind of awesome. It represents a pinnacle of the survival reality genre. It is so good in fact, that it will almost certainly be canceled outright.

Gopher StewThe show is premised on the idea of dropping off a bunch of “regular people” in the Alaskan back-country with nothing but a brief survival orientation, a pile of outdoorsy junk, and a map to civilization. It seems realistic because the cast members are acting as I would expect regular people to act in this kind of a situation. There’s a little friction early on, but it pretty much melts away by the second episode because everyone gets hungry. They spend the remainder of the season obsessively looking for food and firewood. By the time they get out of there everyone has lost a bunch of weight and just wants to find a grocery store.

 Watching people get along out of necessity and eat mice and gophers and porcupines without cringing or making a big deal of it just isn’t inherently entertaining, and many people have trashed the show for that. If you’re looking for loud-talking,  buffoonery and bar fights, skip this one and see if there’s a rerun of Jersey Shore on somewhere. If you love survival stuff, self reliance, hunting, camping, escaping from the world as we know it… TV doesn’t get any better than Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment.