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Posted July 12, 2012
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Critic's Notebook | The TV Watch: Haiti

Where Cholera and the Good Life Rub Shoulders

Andres Martinez Casares for The New York Times

Jennifer Septimus, a nursing student, watching TV in the tent where she lives in Villambeta, a camp in Port-au-Prince for Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In a country divided by class and dispirited by poverty, corruption and disaster, there is not a lot that Haitians and the foreign aid workers trying to help them can see eye to eye on. Except one thing: Television should be used to educate the masses and promote social conciliation. That’s where consensus ends.



Andres Martinez Casares for The New York Times

Saurel Lavaher sells televisions on the street in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Domestic TV programming is anemic, and pirated international shows are popular.

Haitian TV is clamorous and dissonant: instructional announcements about cholera prevention butt up against hedonistic music videos, foreign soap operas and glossy commercials aimed at people who can’t afford to buy much.

Most of the fare is imported. What’s missing is a sense of Haitians as they see themselves.

There’s the familiar cartoon character Ti-Joël from an anti-cholera public service announcement made by Unesco. The spot is almost as graphic as “South Park”; in one episode Ti-Joël’s friend lies in bed, vomiting. Before he can demonstrate the correct way to treat cholera, Ti-Joël must stop his friend’s irate father from killing a neighbor, who the father thinks has put a voodoo curse on his son.

Dozens of public service announcements on Haitian television cover matters from flooding to pedestrian safety. Mexican soap operas and French talk shows send a more defeatist message: Get out of Haiti. Even music videos starring Haitian gangsta-style rappers look foreign, with lots of bling, babes and luxurious backdrops in Miami and New York. Ads are just as slick and deracinated. Most are for Digicel, the cellphone service provider owned by the Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, which controls 80 percent of the Haitian market. There are also perky life-is-a-Club-Med ads for imported rum, Bongú brand foods and the Haitian cigarettes Comme il Faut.

The subliminal suggestions in some ads can seem perverse. Cornflakes from Bongú, the leading domestic food brand, are a down-market item. (The rich buy Kellogg’s or better.) But a current Bongú spot showcases two light-skinned siblings being wakened for breakfast by nearly a dozen pretty Haitian servants in saucy French maid’s uniforms who merrily sashay, pirouette and dance the children downstairs, where a butler and bowls of cereal await.

Television in Haiti resembles the nation’s other underdeveloped industries, like agriculture, manufacturing and construction, in at least one way: Humanitarian aid organizations lose faith in local solutions, and the country’s business and political elite never had any.

“People forget who they are and try to adopt what they see abroad,” said Ary Nicolas, a Haitian activist who encourages Haitians to grow and eat local foods. “Collectively Haitians don’t think that they are worth something and are always looking to replace what they have here with something foreign.”

That may explain why Haiti’s most popular TV character doesn’t appear on TV, except in commercials and music videos. That would be Tonton Bicha, a comical white-haired rascal played by Daniel Fils-Aimé, possibly the best-known Haitian comedian since Theodore Beaubrun, also called Languichatte, or cat’s tongue, who had a hit comedy show in the early 1980s. But there’s no money at the moment in homemade entertainment, so Mr. Fils-Aimé has become rich and famous as a pitchman.

Bicha, as he calls himself, has lucrative contracts to star in ads for almost 20 products. Most are imported, from Bakara, a cheap Dominican rum, to the fruit shakes made abroad and sold by Bongú. Protecta burial insurance, on the other hand, is offered by a Haitian company. In Bicha’s pitch for Protecta he pops up from a white coffin and tells mourners not to cry — his funeral is already paid for. Bisha is also a paid communications adviser to President Michel Martelly, a former music star and businessman known as Sweet Micky.

Bicha has been a guest on Haiti’s one homegrown comedy show, “Regards Croisés,” but he has plans for his own television program, “The Bicha Show,” which he is developing with Tripp TV, a private channel that favors sports, music videos and busty V.J.’s in low-cut tank tops. “I’m going to do ‘The Jerry Springer Show,’ ” Bicha said proudly in an interview. “The exact same thing, only with Tonton Bicha.”

Rich Haitians, who make up a tiny fraction of the nation’s population, have satellite dishes and watch ESPN and French premium cable. In Haiti anyone with a radio station can acquire a television license; there are now as many as 300 television channels, and almost all programming is pirated. Most stations are fallow or unwatched, especially beyond the capital, Port-au-Prince, where electrical power and TV reception are unreliable at best. In Saut d’Eau, a pilgrimage town 45 miles north of the capital that gets electricity only once a year, locals recharge cellphones using the town’s solar panel and crank up generators to catch the World Cup.

Television viewing in Haiti is not for sissies. There are daily blackouts in most Port-au-Prince neighborhoods, and even residents with private generators must perform acrobatic feats with the antennas to find clear reception. In slums residents in tin shacks and plastic tents siphon electricity from the city grid with wire as tenuous as spider’s silk.

Domestic programming consists mostly of contests, low-budget “American Idol” knockoffs with names like “Digicel Stars” and “StarMax.” Newscasts on commercial channels are rare, and the two-hour nightly news on state-owned television is about as lively as C-Span and even more low-tech. For the weather report a camera turns to a laptop showing a map from the United States’ National Hurricane Center.

There are religious shows, Roman Catholic and evangelical. One of the most inescapable is a Christian travelogue that stars Frère Joel (Joel Trimble), an American missionary who has lived in Haiti since 1975 and got his start preaching on a voodoo radio station. For the last six years on state-owned television and several commercial channels, he and his wife, Yvonne, host “La Bonne Nouvelle” (“The Good News”), a Christian travel and cooking show. In fluent, heavily accented Creole, Mr. Trimble delivers good news about Haitian locales and special dishes.

“You won’t see 30 seconds of poverty,” Mr. Trimble said, describing his show’s mission. “We show Haitians what they have to be proud of.” In a Thanksgiving episode the Trimbles’ cook, a young woman in a green uniform and white apron, plucks a Haitian turkey, then cooks it Creole style. Mr. Trimble eats it with gusto with his hands.

At almost any time of day or night on Haitian TV someone is passionately declaring love — or hate — in Spanish dubbed into French. The Mexican telenovela “Teresa” attracts a lot of ads. Haiti’s own soap opera, “Destinée,” on Télévision Nationale d’Haïti, does not, perhaps because sponsors believe viewers prefer the escapism of foreign heartbreak.

Moira, the heroine of “Destinée,” is a poor girl from the countryside who moves to Port-au-Prince when her parents die; she moves in with her aunt but is kicked out after she is raped by a cousin and becomes pregnant.

“The problems Moira faces are unfortunately common in Haitian culture,” said Véronique Cadet, who writes, produces, directs and stars in the series. “It’s a lot like other telenovelas, but people here can recognize themselves.” Voodoo is woven into the plot, but Moira, Ms. Cadet said, is a pious Christian. “Mostly she cries and prays,” she explained with a shrug.

Shortly after the 2010 earthquake the United Nations commissioned a Haitian soap opera called “Under the Sky,” set in a tent camp, that was supposed to entertain earthquake victims while also teaching them to get along.

It was an ambitious project — with a budget of more than $440,000, according to one United Nations official — and it was shown only in camps and received lots of news attention. In Haiti, however, it never made it to television.

Now another group of foreign aid organizations is working with the Haitian government to create a sitcom to help Haitians help themselves. It is called “Tap-Tap,” the Haitian term for the colorfully painted vans that are the closest thing to reliable public transportation in the capital. Leonard Doyle, the spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, recruited a young Haitian director to film it. In the pilot a tap-tap driver whose taxi breaks down is robbed, but to his surprise he gets a helping hand from a rough-looking drifter with dreadlocks.

“We want to break down the barriers of prejudice,” Mr. Doyle said. “But we don’t want to turn out just another ‘good behavior’ lecture. We want to make it fun, have it become a hit, and the rest will flow.”

Contriving a hit, however, is not as easy as it sounds. While waiting for the Haitian government to put “Tap-Tap” on the air, Mr. Doyle and his colleagues have tried to gin up popular demand. The first idea was to make the show go viral via smartphones. That didn’t work because it’s so hard to stream video in Haiti, even on the Digicel 4G system. The creators then invested in a DVD burner so copies could be distributed to bootleggers and street vendors in hopes that the show would take off that way.

It’s still early, but “Tap-Tap,” while expertly filmed and scored, has not caught on, perhaps because it is a bit preachy. In the pilot the tap-tap driver offers the good Samaritan a reward, but the drifter refuses to take his money, and instead asks for job training. “Don’t give me a fish,” he says in Creole. “Teach me how to fish.”

Foreign aid workers don’t watch Haitian television. Yet they are determined to improve it.


Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts, of Thursday, July 12, 2012., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights

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