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.

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

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.

After Armageddon (2011)

Rating: OK.After Armagddon is the documentary that doomsday enthusiasts have been waiting for. All of the right elements are there to paint a compelling image of the end of the world as we know it. Unfortunately it ends up being sort of a tepid dishrag of a production, and I’m pretty sure that the fault lies in the direction

After ArmageddonThe documentary takes us into a hypothetical breakdown of society after an imagined influenza pandemic. In order to humanize the scenario, it is structured around the journey of one fictional, “normal” family through the apocalypse, from the first sneeze to the last staph infection after the antibiotics run out. This is just the thing to do, but the members of this family are dismally boring, to the point that it’s hard to care whether they make it or not.

The action in After Armagddon is punctuated with interjections from a host of experts, and most of them actually are experts of one sort or another. There are lots of academics who have presumably studied disasters, and they are generally making reasonable observations in as dull a manner as possible. The director has mixed in a few people of questionable expertise who spout off their opinions with a bit more vigor, but since they are all put on the same level in the film it’s hard to tell a good source of information from a bad one.

The actual dramatizations of survival-type scenarios are middling at best. Some seem kind of plausible, but others are outright misleading. In one case, for example, an expert explains that you can boil water to make it biologically safe and the scene cuts to the family boiling rusty water drained from a car radiator. After they cook it, it’s miraculously clear and palatable and that just doesn’t happen. Never mind that the boiling does nothing for whatever chemicals might leech out of an old radiator. That bit of miscommunication could actually get someone killed.

All in all, the video is kind of interesting. I’ve watched it a couple of times. Still, it’s not a brilliant reference, nor is it particularly entertaining. It’s kind of a miss, but if you’re into critically speculating on the end of the world you won’t want to miss it.