Sitcom takes aim at danger, boredom in Haiti camps

haitiMuddy water flows under the tent and pools around the electric studio lights. Actors sitting at the mock-kitchen table lift their feet away from a very real, growing flood.

This is the set of Haiti’s new comedy soap opera, “Under the Sky,” filmed in the capital’s earthquake survivor camps for the hundreds of thousands of people who live in them. The episode was supposed to be about securing makeshift shelters against the strengthening rainy season. Then things got too realistic.

After an hour of rising water and several blackouts, shooting was canceled for the day.

That’s one of the dangers of filming episodes in a camp on the flood-prone outskirts of Port-au-Prince. But Haitian-American director Jacques Roc said it’s the only way to make sure the series’ message will resonate with the hundreds of thousands for whom floods and insecurity are now just daily life.

“There’s a lot that’s going on in the camps right now, and when you stay in the camp you learn about it,” Roc said. “They have to adjust to this kind of behavior and this is what you try to show to people.”

“Under the Sky” follows a fictional family of five who ? like many of the 1.5 million people who lost their homes ? fled to tent-and-tarp camps that are now the standard image of life in the Haitian capital.

Combining comedy, drama and educational messages, it features nationally known actors such as Junior Metellus, a 35-year-old veteran of other Roc projects. He plays Akim, the son-in-law of the patriarch Jean-Jo.

Writers are still developing the story as they shoot, so neither Jean-Jo’s last name nor details of his pre-quake life have been revealed yet, Roc said.

They also have not yet said whether any of the characters’ family members died in the quake.
The creators’ primary goal was to establish a middle-class environment for the family ? with the appropriate clothes, books and furniture ? to demonstrate how the Jan. 12 disaster cut across all layers of society.

“Not everyone in the tents came from a low background. Some of them had a house. Some of them still have their cars,” said Roc, who moved to the United States at age 14 and studied filmmaking at New York University.

Each 15-minute episode centers around a core theme determined by U.N. peacekeepers, who came up with the idea and are footing the series’ $6,000-per-episode bill.

Officials with the 9,000-strong force, which came to Haiti in 2004 in part to fight gangs, hope the series will teach camp dwellers about surviving difficult conditions ? and equally as important, alleviate dangerous levels of boredom among those living in the camps and others making their way back to broken neighborhoods.

“At nighttime it provides an entertainment and a way of communicating information that’s useful,” said U.N. mission spokesman David Wimhurst.

The messages concern building safety, violence prevention, camp resident registration campaigns ? any of the dozens of dangers and challenges earthquake survivors contend with every day.

The planned 16-part series is being shown on open-air screens at more than a dozen camps, part of four-hour programming blocks that also include public-service announcements, movies and music videos. Next month organizers may use the screens to air World Cup soccer games.

“Under the Sky” airs on six Haitian television stations. There are plans to upload it to YouTube and distribute it to Haitian diaspora stations in the United States.

True to their sponsor, Roc’s team produces the episodes with military-like precision. Once the peacekeepers hand down the week’s message, they write, stage, shoot and edit in a couple days. The first two episodes were shown within hours of completion, emblazoned on big white screens set up at about a dozen earthquake camps where thousands gathered to watch.

Then came Episode 3.

Before Friday’s shoot, a low-pressure system over the northern Caribbean started pushing storm cells toward the ravaged capital. Civil defense authorities issued a flood warning, but the 24-strong crew and actors reported to the hillside camp in the neighborhood of Tabarre anyway.

Lackadaisical clouds gathered over the hill. Then shortly after the sun set, they unloaded. The area beside the shooting tents turned to gelatinous mud. A family’s tent was blown off the nearby hilltop, and people ran to protect their few belongings from the deluge. Streams of water flowed into the tents. After a tense wait, the shoot was postponed.

The next night, Saturday, camp residents across Port-au-Prince had to content themselves with a rerun of the second episode, in which a scheming neighbor in sunglasses hatches a plot to buy and sell forged camp identification cards. (Spoiler: It doesn’t work.)

But there were no complaints from the dozen or so people who braved the flooding pavement of the Champ de Mars to watch “Under the Sky” on a two-sided screen erected a rainy block from the collapsed presidential palace. Young men covered themselves with plastic sheets and a teenage couple huddled under a broken umbrella.

“As soon as (the weekend comes), this is where I go to spend my time,” said a 19-year-old who identified himself only as Luknor. “They come with the big screen to show us what’s happening in the country.”

Luknor said he learned from the first episode of “Under the Sky” that his house near Port-au-Prince’s main soccer stadium ? color-coded “red” by inspection crews ? was not safe for his baby, girlfriend and mother to return.

There are characters he relates to as well. Akim’s wife, Mairilyse, is an out-of-work teacher whose school was destroyed in the quake. The store where Luknor worked collapsed on Jan. 12; he’s waiting for the government to help him find another job and home.

Despite ? or maybe because ? of all this misery, jokes are what sell the series, Roc said. In one episode, a neighbor walks into the family’s shelter only to get reproached by the father: “You don’t just walk into someone’s tent like that. You knock first!”

“But where is he going to knock?” the mother replies. “There’s no door.”
The line goes over big.

“Haitians like comedy. They like to laugh. Even if it gets serious they have to laugh somehow,” Roc said.

Source: The Associated Press.