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Interview Wed Feb 12 2014
By Brian Gersten
Jack Newell and Dinesh Sabu are independent filmmakers currently working on a feature-length documentary entitled How To Build A School In Haiti. Jack is a bearded white guy from Chicago who gained critical success in 2010 with his short film Typing. Dinesh is a lanky Indian guy, originally from Albuquerque, who has collaborated on several projects with Kartemquin Films. Consequently, I was curious as to why they chose to make an incredibly ambitious documentary in Haiti.
The origin of their documentary odyssey began after the destruction and turmoil following the Haiti earthquake in 2010 when a man named Tim Myers, a 67-year-old retired construction worker from Colorado, decided he would help build a school for the villagers of Villard, Haiti. Subsequently, Jack and Dinesh have been focusing their cameras on this community — recording the trials, tribulations, and issues associated with international development and aid as it relates to Haiti.
From left: Jack Newell, Dinesh Sabu & Tim Myers. Photo by Tim Myers
Most recently, Jack and Dinesh have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund their project, and they will be filming in Haiti during the month of February. I recently sat down with the two filmmakers in a cold, dark corner of Blind Robin Bar in Chicago to discuss their film, the current state of Haiti, and the challenges that come with making your first feature-length documentary. Here's the conversation we had.
So what drew you to this story in particular?
Jack Newell: The reason this documentary got started was, I was listening to this podcast called Planet Money on NPR and I'm an avid listener. So the short version is, they [Planet Money] were in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. They came to this town in the middle part of the country and they found this school. The school was under-supplied, under-financed, under-everything. The listeners of the podcast gave money to the school. They tried to build a new school. They were unable to build a new school. And basically in November of 2011 the story was over.
Then April 2012, I remember I was driving in my car and I was listening to the podcast and it's like, "Hey, we got an update from Haiti. This guy Tim from Colorado who's a retired construction manager has decided to build this school." I remember in my car it's like — I don't necessarily believe in God but I feel like there's a moment where my purpose was clear. I was just like, "I am making this movie." It wasn't even a decision. And I basically found a way to get in touch with Tim and in July of 2011 I met him in Port-au-Prince and that was the beginning of the documentary.
What expectations did you have going into this?
JN: We all went down there thinking one thing. Very idealistic, very kind of Pollyanna-ish if I can be critical of myself, and it's been a real learning experience about how this kind of stuff works — about how international development works, about how international aid works, and about how humans work. It's been incredibly revealing about just the human condition and cultural contact and cultural conflicts. My expectations were — this is a great story. This is a story that should be told. No matter what happens, it needs to be told.
Dinesh Sabu: That being said, there's a couple of great stories of cameras breaking. Weird shit happening on every trip.
What's one example of "weird shit happening"?
JN: The first trip down, it was a short trip. It's so funny, cause it felt like a lifetime. Dinesh was not with me then. In the middle of the shoot, like day one and a half, I destroyed the camera I came down there with. I remember sitting in the car and realizing the entire reason I'm down here is gone. Then it became this frenzied kind of quest. I ended up going through five cameras the couple of days I was there. It's funny cause this footage will probably never end up being in the film. I think for me, the lesson we learned is you got to persevere. Even when you've lost your camera, and you have no reason to be down there anymore, you need to push forward.
The main focus of the story to a large extent is — white American goes to help these black Haitians build a school. This idea of the white savior is a common theme, so as a filmmaker what do you have to be mindful of when this is partly the focus of your film?
JN: I think that's our entry in, and I think we kind of want to use that as a crowbar to open up some of these bigger issues and say we're also going to show you the other stories.
DS: In many ways we're kind of telling the exact opposite of that story. If you look at the material and you look at the kind of story we're going to tell, I think it's very much a well-intentioned guy goes down and has the exact opposite experience. He does not necessarily do right by the community and I think we're committed to being really honest about how that unfolds. So in many ways as filmmakers we're not quite playing with that narrative convention but we're kind of turning that narrative convention upside down.
Tim Myers is sort of the driving force of this story, so can you give us a sense of who he is as a person?
JN: Tim is 67. He is a retired construction manager, and he lives in Carbondale, Colorado. He's kind of bounced around a lot but he found his living building basically mansions for millionaires. He was involved with Michael Eisner's place in Aspen. Tim has some serious understanding of construction. When he got to Haiti he was like, "I said I was going to build this school so I'm going to build this school. A man does what he says." I see him as a John Wayne kind of guy.
DS: He is all of those things that Jack said, but I see in Tim this kind of baby boomer, liberal paternalist — and maybe those words are too damning, 'cause he is an incredibly well intentioned, very straightforward, very earnest man. But just the way he thinks about people, the way he thinks about problems, the way he thinks about his way in the world is not necessarily wrong but perhaps out of date, or perhaps not quite the speed I'm used to.
JN: That's actually really interesting that you say that 'cause if we were filmmakers in our 40s or 50s, I feel like we'd be, "Tim is the man!" He's your classic liberal dad. He is completely committed to this project. He's all in.
DS: Which you got to respect that kind of commitment. At the end of the day, as much as we can intellectualize about this, he's made a school and we've made a movie.
JN: We haven't even made the movie yet. [Laughs]
Can you talk a little bit about the education system in Haiti and why a school is needed rather than say a hospital or affordable housing?
DS: I'm convinced that schools are not necessarily needed. I think schools are a very celebrated thing. They're easy to point to and show to funders and be like, "Hey, we built this school." But the thing about Haiti is there are so many kinds of structural problems that a simple thing like a brick and mortar school doesn't necessarily aggress even in the realm of education.
JN: And it gets compounded too. We've experienced it in our own country after the financial crisis. There are well qualified people who have an education that cannot find jobs. What good is having an education in Haiti if there are no jobs? But in Haiti an education — that's like the Haitian dream. Education is in the constitution of Haiti. It's not in the American constitution.
I have one question in mind, but I don't know if I should ask it. It's, how do you build a school in Haiti?
JN: That's actually funny. We were talking about this recently. I was like, "I'm gonna do a round of interviews where I ask everyone that question. So how do you build a school in Haiti?" Cause I think it's actually a great question. That question embodies the kind of naiveté that we want to imbue in the film. I mean, how do you make a school in Haiti? I don't know. That's actually a very difficult question to answer.
DS: I would say that the material we've gathered so far is a really great primer on how not to build a school in Haiti. But I mean let's take your question and make it as concrete as possible. The Blank Foundation just gave Jack and Dinesh one million dollars to build a school in Haiti. I'd really want to find some way to understand the needs of the community. Looking at data from that region — economics, jobs, education outcomes, and really understanding what kind of school and what kind of education this community needs. And from there, partnering with local educational organizations and really being deliberate about the way these things are done.
JN: Ok, you've just spent one million dollars and you have no school.
DS: [Laughs] I think I just have a 2,000-page report.
So the rest of the media has moved on, but you guys are still in Haiti. What progress have you seen and what should Americans be aware of that they're not being told?
JN: The first thing that comes to mind about Haiti is that it's a lot safer than you've been led to believe.
DS: I think in America there's a very particular way the developing world is portrayed. We're led to believe that these are kind of lawless, primitive places. We've been doing a lot of research about Haitian history and you know after the US, it was the next former colony in the western hemisphere to become independent. There's this incredible national character of Haitians, this staunch sense of independence and individualism that you would not get from mainstream media reports.
As far as production goes, what stage is the film in right now?
JN: I think we've shot about 65% or 70% of everything we need to shoot at this point — famous last words. We're going down in February to shoot the opening of the school and I want to go down at least one more time
Who do you want to see this film and what do you want them to get out of it?
DS: My inner punk wants those really well intentioned kind of paternalistic liberals to watch this film. Don't get me wrong. I love those guys. A lot of my friends are those guys, but I want people who are really well intentioned to watch this film and kind of understand that the world is a more complicated place.
JN: I just want to be true to the Haitians in the film. Maybe one of the kids in the school will see this in 10 years and be like, "Oh, that really speaks honestly to my experience. That is a true representation of what happened or what could have happened. The promise of what could have been or the peril that was realized." That's what's always balancing in my brain.
Brian Gersten is a freelance writer, documentarian, rapper, actor, and basketball historian.