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Posted June 10, 2010
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Displaced See Their Stories on TV
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A soap opera played in the evening last month in the Caradeux Camp. Outdoor screens are popping up across Port-au-Prince.


CARADEUX CAMP, Haiti - The movie screen rose like an apparition, in the middle of a tent city, on a hillside veined by rain. "Under the Sky," the title card said, and sure enough, a soap opera about a family living right here suddenly appeared.
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Bringing Cinema to Haitian Tents: Audio Slide Show
Love and scandal followed, but the episode focused mainly on one issue: con men in the camps. After a slick villain in dark sunglasses tried to sell registration cards to the show's main characters, claiming falsely that they could be redeemed for cash, officials with the International Organization for Migration suddenly appeared to save the day.

"That guy was a thief," said the patriarch of the family, played by one of Haiti's most famous actors, Lionel Benjamin. "I knew he was trouble."

First, Haitians received food and shelter; now the moving image has joined the humanitarian response. All over this rattled capital city, Port-au-Prince, outdoor screens are popping up, as a handful of organizations race to produce programming that entertains and informs the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in camps without televisions or radios.
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A soap opera filmed last month at the Caradeux Camp. The programs are meant for those without televisions or radios.
The soap opera, financed by the United Nations and its partners, for instance, is part of a 16-episode series shown three nights a week in 16 camps, along with music videos and Haitian movies. Several other groups - including FilmAid, founded by Caroline Baron, who produced "Capote" - are also setting up programs to show movies and train Haitians to shoot their own. And while the result may be amusing, the impetus was serious: organizers say the programs will fill in for a government that has failed to communicate effectively, letting rumors and schemes spread among those most desperate for help.

"We need to get them good information, not disinformation," said David Wimhurst, the United Nations spokesman in Haiti. "We have a lot to tell them."

Coming episodes of the soap opera will deal with how to better secure the tents and tarpaulins that many here now call home. There may also be lessons on mosquito nets and vaccinations; on sanitation; and on how to stay safe in the sprawling camps.

Each episode cost about $6,000 to produce, and Mr. Wimhurst said the goal was to create something useful and funny. Ms. Baron, who has been screening films at refugee camps in Africa for 11 years, said the best humanitarian programming included fun and function, with a local face.

"It's very important that the films we make for the community are by the community so they are readily and easily understood," she said in an interview after meeting with Haitian officials. "No matter what the subject matter, people enjoy themselves because they can relate to the people on the screen."

But the challenges facing these projects are immense. During one recent day on location with "Under the Sky," the experience of filming was as revealing as the episode itself. One frustration followed another.

First, the director of the series, Jacques Roc, 54, who left Haiti when he was 14 and spent most of his career in New York directing commercials and writing jingles, was pulled away to another camp because one of his projectionists had been roughed up.

The free entertainment apparently undercut some local operators, who were charging $3 "for a little screen in a tent," he said. "Whenever we're there, they don't make any money."

Before he returned, the blinding heat arrived. By 11:30 a.m., it was over 90 degrees and humid on the set. Mr. Benjamin sat sweating and waiting for his cue to start, which finally came an hour later. It was a simple scene for the tent episode, with migration officials showing the family how to use stones to secure tents, but the set in the middle of the camp drew too much attention.

At one point, a little boy shook a tambourine outside a play area. Later, production staff members threw pebbles at people walking by to keep them moving along rather than gathering and wondering if they might get a job.

After dark, Mr. Roc tried to pick up a few shots inside the green army tent he used as a set. It had a mattress on the floor, a dinner table and porcelain figurines in a wooden hutch — a sign that the family at the heart of the drama had been middle class.

Mr. Roc's long curls bobbed beneath a baseball cap as he prepared to get started, but then it started raining. A tropical storm had moved over the country.

The water pounded away, as if a million golf balls had been dropped on the tent at once. Then it appeared inside, slipping beside the mattress and around the electric lights.

Mr. Roc, who sleeps in the camp a few nights a week, had seen it before. The first time it rained during a shoot, the production's two dozen employees scrambled to move their equipment from the ground. "If we had done this episode earlier," he said, laughing, referring to the tent segment, "maybe we would have been prepared."

Over all, in fact, the impact of the soaps and other efforts is hard to measure. Haiti has 1,322 camps, with more than 10,000 tents and 564,000 tarpaulins covering more than a million people, according to migration officials. A few dozen screens, or even 300, would reach only a small percentage of the displaced.

At the same time, aid groups have expressed concern about the camps' becoming permanent slums. Mark Turner, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the population of the camps continues to grow nearly five months after the earthquake, partly because some people use them as a hub of free assistance, even if their homes are intact.

The movie screens, for now at least, are yet another lure.

On the other hand, when the screens appear in a landscape left mostly dark, outside, with a cool breeze, it can be hard for Haitians not to see it as magical. A few days after Mr. Roc's rainout here in Caradeux, the screen came alive with his work, which then gave way to gospel music videos. Teenagers gathered to watch and flirt in the early evening darkness, while up on the hill, Ameniz Auxide, 54, swayed, prayed and sang along with what she saw.

"If you listen and watch," she said, her face lit by the screen, "you feel like God is with us."

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Thursday, June 10, 2010.
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