The symbiotic relationship between the humanitarian sector and those who document its work is by no means an easy one. This point seems likely to be made again with Fatal Assistance, a documentary by Raoul Peck due to screen in London on Saturday as part of the Human Rights Watch film festival. It offers a critique of relief efforts in Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2010.
For UK viewers, Peck’s film comes off the back of a feature-length piece – tellingly entitled The Trouble with Aid – screened by the BBC late last year. Made with the cooperation of key figures from the humanitarian sector, it portrayed fifty years of humanitarian aid as a story of manipulation and compromise. This clip discussing the camps for Rwandan refugees following the 1994 genocide gives a sense of the filmmakers’ approach:
The documentary’s take on humanitarian history provoked a lively debate amongst sector experts but its tenets were hardly new. For instance, a 1996 documentary by former Médecins sans Frontières head Rony Brauman (La pitié dangereuse, Arte) made many similar points. Brauman’s documentary came in the wake of the experiences in Rwanda and discoveries about the cooptation of refugee camps by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.
Regardless of the whether you share their views, we should be glad that these critical documentaries now get an airing. Recently a friend brought my attention to Ken Loach’s 1969 documentary about Save the Children (SCF). It is notoriously hard to get your hands on. This is because for a long time, Save the Children (which had commissioned the film and part-financed it) insisted that it not be broadcast in any way. As Leo Entnicknap explained on the VAHS blog, rather than making a supportive piece about SCF’s combat against poverty in the UK and abroad, Loach lambasted the ‘sticking-plaster solutions’ that he saw in their programmes and the class prejudice and colonialism of their work in England and Kenya. The single copy only narrowly escaped being trashed entirely.
After more than forty years under lock and key, the unfinished film screened in 2011. A panel discussion brought Loach and the film’s producer Tony Garnett together with the present chief executive of SCF-UK, Justin Forsythe, to discuss the film’s fate and its relevance to current affairs. This Q&A is well worth watching for a glimpse into some of the workings of censorship and changing attitudes towards the recipients of aid, as well as the insight that the repudiation of the past is often better served by acknowledging errors than avoiding them.
Such documentaries are contentious because they have the potential to reach a far greater audience than the grey literature and academic analyses that often share their critiques. Countless studies have made in print the same points about manipulation, paternalism, or misuse of funds, and will no doubt continue to do so; though they may be more nuanced than documentaries, this is by no means automatic. But in a fast-moving field where public opinion counts, the medium can have a huge impact on the power of the message.