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Spotlight on Tony Wannamaker csc. by cinequipwhite
May 31, 2010, 4:38 pm
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Inside Disaster
The Haitian Earthquake of 2010

Images from Inside Disaster courtesy of Tony Wannamaker cscImages from Inside Disaster courtesy of Tony Wannamaker csc


Images from Inside Disaster courtesy of Tony Wannamaker cscImages from Inside Disaster courtesy of Tony Wannamaker csc

Haiti, as most people are aware, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Prior to the earthquake, the infrastructure of Port-au-Prince was spotty at best. I was there 15 years ago shooting a cultural documentary at the time when President Clinton was visiting President Aristide. Back then, I saw how poor its citizens were and knew how violent the place could be. It was a desperate place with good people who needed a break. Haiti, the first independent black state in the Western Hemisphere, has been persecuted from the day it declared independence from the France in 1804. Haitians have had to live under the kleptocracy governments of Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc for 29 years and then try and deal with the foreign meddling during Aristide’s administration. Add to this background, a 7.0 magnitude quake in the city centre was incomprehensible to me.

We landed in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, in the evening and planned to depart overland by bus at 4:00 a.m. It was a 10-hour ride to reach Port-au-Prince. When we arrived at the Dominican/Haitian border, I thought I had arrived on set at a George Lucas Star Wars taping. It was madness! In one spot on an arid plain stood a 20-metre fence and gate that controlled who gets in and who gets out. Haitians were pleading for passage. Some fellas would run past the armed guards into the Dominican with a 50-50 chance of being shot. We rolled on in all of this confusion. It would be the tenor of the shoot. I knew from my many years of shooting documentaries that it was important to move quickly into the most effective positions to record these fleeting moments of the human condition. I needed to move precisely and quickly and then to dial down the noise and select movements that would provide compelling documentation. My audio partner and I clicked. We would become a great team, and it was evident from day one. We were the right guys and the perfect team to bang this chaos into a film.

By the January 14, we were set-up briefly at the Canadian Red Cross in Peitonville before moving near the seaport to the dusty and ridiculously hot environment of the abandoned warehouse. On the 14th we visited our first triage centre. Coming into Port-au-Prince, we witnessed the first scattered convoys of bloated bodies somewhat covered in the back of pickups leaving the city. We learned quickly to put on charcoal masks, and I always had a scarf ready to cover my nose. At the triage centre, which was ostensibly a heavy-equipment depot, badly wounded Haitians, victims of building collapses and falling debris, were brought for medical help. At this point, early in the rescue and relief efforts, there were sparse-to-no medical supplies for the injured. One overwhelmed doctor assessed the wounded and enlisted volunteers to care for them.

As the days progressed post-earthquake, we experienced many horrors and much hope. We witnessed the aftermath execution style of Haitian police shooting looters. Looters lay in the streets, some with their hands tied behind their backs and shot in the head. Others, whether they are looters or casualties of the quake, lay in the street burning; some lay there burning as protest; some lay there burning as notice; some lay there burning as protection from disease. In the 17 days I spent in Haiti, I only experienced two days that I didn’t see a corpse. Sadly, Adlaf and I learned too well the smell of decay and could lead you to a corpse faster than a Toronto canine unit.

In all this pain, agony and fleeting hope, we documented the FACT team and aggregate infusion of Red Cross delegates from around the world build, as a regiment of soldiers became a division of men and women. We documented the hardships the relief workers endured to get food and supplies to people in need. We witnessed the life saving efforts of the international community. I documented the dying of many people when I first arrived. That changed to amputations – the saving of the person to the saving of limbs. One young girl, we documented in surgery, will have the use of both of her legs. The risk the Red Cross delegates took in the form of disease and personal harm; the security measures they endured to operate were chronicled.

I shot this film from an up-close-and-personal account rather than on a long lens and from across the street. Paul, Nadine and I went into the story. We talked to the injured and we talked to the caregivers. We documented the rescue of people from collapsed buildings, the relief of water, food and shelter and we plan to return in a timely fashion and record the final phase of a Red Cross commitment, the reconstruction. How long will it take to fix Haiti? Who knows. I read all the trade magazines today to get another perspective on the situation, to get more objectivity. I still don’t know. But I will say that Haitians will need the world’s support for a long time and they will need a stable government for a long time. My hope is that when the great Kino eye of the world turns to another disaster, people won’t forget the reconstruction of Haiti. They need help and the pain won’t go away as fast as the media.

It was a little after 6:00 p.m. on January 12 when my mother came running into our Belleville kitchen to tell us that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had just hit Haiti. My wife took a concerned look at me as she ran into the bedroom to filter more information. I slowly poked at my spaghetti dinner, knowing my world was about to change. “It happened near the capital,” Rhonda said with a knowing look. I’d been to Port-au-Prince 15 years earlier and knew it was an overcrowded capital city of two million. It was very poor and very desperate. I knew right then and there I would be leaving for Haiti. Within two hours, I had driven to my office in Toronto and finalized my preparation to go.

I had been waiting since September of 2009 to fly to a natural disaster site that would initiate the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) to mobilize its FACT team (First Assessment and Co-ordination Team). Little did I know that this would turn out to be the biggest volunteer mobilization of the Red Cross in a single country in its entire history. I was hired early in the production to DOP this unique documentary, directed and co-produced by Nadine Pequeneza and executive produced by Andrea Nemtin and Ian Dunbar of PTV, to be initially broadcast on TVO. The three-hour documentary is entitled Inside Disaster. We had unprecedented permission to embed ourselves with the IFRC and stay close to the Canadian Red Cross. We planned to follow this organization and chronicle how it operates in some of the most difficult and horrendous situations.

There were six of us who travelled to Haiti. The A-team was myself, Pequeneza, sound technician Paul Adlaf and web producer Nico Jolliett, and we were the first team to travel to Haiti. The B-team was DOP Stephan Randstrom and sound technician Simon Paine, who were the second to follow. I had my bags packed and camera equipment documented and at the ready to go for four months. I argued at our early meetings to use the Sony XD-700 camera with the 24p card. I had shot a CBC Nature of Things documentary in northern B.C. a few years ago chronicling great forest fires. The older XD 530 was the perfect choice in an environment of airborne contaminates. The 2/3-inch chip 700 XD camera (Mpeg 422) with the 24p card and 1080p resolution and the ability to quickly thumbnail a scene was the perfect choice for documenting a disaster. I had no idea of how right I was until I was in Haiti.

I took my initial allotment of 30 doubled-sided XD discs (PFD-50), which allowed me to bang for 95 minutes at the highest resolution. Not knowing what infrastructure I would have to deal with, I took the following camera equipment: 12 charged batteries; four chargers; gel cell; car battery charger; one new Honda generator (no fuel); one Cartoni tripod with carbon fibre legs; soft case and hard case for transport; rain cover; two lenses (4.5 wide and 7.8 long); polarizer filter; matt box; easy rig; lens-cleaning cloth, papers, liquid and brush; and software and cables to output and screen rushes on Pequeneza’s laptop. We figured we’d needed to prepare for the worst for a duration of three days, maybe five days if it was really bad. We didn’t know we would be in survival mode and shooting the documentary for 15 days.

In addition to the detailed preparation and multiple purposed use of our equipment, we had to prepare ourselves for the camping trip of a lifetime. We carried the requisite camping supplies and then some. We left with our mosquito nets, leatherman tools, small diesel cook stove, flashlights, bedrolls, toilet paper, first aid kits, personal hypodermic needles and a lifetime of inoculations and MRE (meals ready to eat) rations to cover the first week. The MREs saved our hides, but I’m tired of eating them cold. My wife had picked them up at a local military supply store in Kingston, Ontario. Upon my return, friends inquired why was it that we needed food and bottled water when we were embedded with the Red Cross. The deal was that we needed to be able to look after ourselves and not become a liability for the Red Cross as they planned to save tens of thousands of Haitian lives. Furthermore, the numbers of delegates arriving with no provisions quickly overwhelmed the Red Cross. This statement might shed some light as to the difficulty operating in Haiti in the first days, post-earthquake. By January 18, when we had to move to the new base camp at an abandoned warehouse and set up in the open aired square, there were two portable toilets shared by 200 people.


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