Chicago filmmaker experiences life in Haiti while documenting philanthropist’s project

Jack Newell teaches Louis  Davens how work camera. | Provided photoJack Newell teaches Louis Davens how to work the camera. | Provided photo

What am I doing here and why don’t I leave?

Filmmaker Jack Newell and veteran builder Tim Myers wondered those same things shortly after undertaking very different but long interrelated projects in the small and poverty-stricken Haitian town of l’Artibonite, about two hours south of the country’s earthquake-shattered capital Port-au-Prince.

The 69-year-old Myers, who spent most of his career toiling on luxury homes in Aspen, Colo., arrived in 2010 to lend a hand and his expertise. He’d become interested after hearing a National Public Radio story about the Haitian town’s need for a permanent school building to replace the makeshift one set up in a small church.

Thirty-one-year-old Newell, a Chicago-based filmmaker and Columbia College film school grad whose wide-ranging subjects have included food, found video footage and improvisation, learned of Myers’ involvement when NPR aired a follow-up segment. He was immediately hooked and made it his mission to document the project’s evolution — and Myers’ involvement along with it.

“People have said, ‘Why are you wasting your time down there when there are so many problems here?’” Newell says.

And he gets that. But this called to him in a way he can’t fully articulate.

“It just wasn’t a choice. It was, ‘This is it. I’ve got to make this film.’’’

Upon visiting for the first time, however, he soon realized what Myers already knew: Working in Haiti can be a real pain no thanks to the scourge of dysentery, rampant disorganization, spotty electrical service, oppressive heat, barely functional showers and major language barriers.

“There’s moments when we’re just like, ‘F— this place. I just want to be home,’” Newell says. “But then it passes. And it has to pass. If you were to go down there and not be affected by it and not say ‘f— this place,’ then you would be lying to yourself.”

Myers is far less disheartened and doubtful than he was a few years ago, when he arrived to find sub-par materials and unskilled workers. “I’ve wanted to quit for six months,” he says in a short trailer Newell released for fundraising purposes. “It’s consuming my life.”

Myers co-founded the school with a North Carolina-based physical therapist named Fred Ireland, and along with a few others they sit on the board of a nonprofit organization called the Haiti School Project. So far, Myers says, they’ve raised $150,000 — two-thirds of which went toward erecting a structurally sound and earthquake-resistant school that today houses fourth- and fifth-graders.

Last year, while going through a divorce, Myers decided a radical lifestyle change was in order — one that could only be achieved by divesting himself of material possessions. Distracting “stuff.” So he sold his house in Colorado, sold or gave away most of his belongings and moved to Haiti full-time in order to more effectively supervise continuing construction (he and his colleagues want to install a kitchen, clean running water, toilets, electrical wiring and possibly a second story while also funding such necessities as eyeglasses, books and de-worming) and immerse himself in the Haitian culture.

Although he is surer than ever of his mission, there remain impediments.

“We think a little different in [the U.S.],” Myers explains, calling from his home in the idyllic mountains about 20 miles from l’Artibonite, where the air is cool and clean like it never is below. “We think if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. We work on schedules and efficiency and all those kinds of things that they’re not used to doing down here. There’s a certain amount of ‘island time’ aspect to the country. They live from one day to the other in much of the country, and it’s the way they’ve lived their whole life.”

Patience isn’t yet his strong suit, Myers says, but he’s working on it. Haiti, he says, “will teach you patience.”

During his three or four months “in country,” Newell has also learned to go with the flow — “not to sound too hippy-dippy about it.” For instance, if he and his cinematographer Dinesh Sabu, of Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, set up a 9 a.m. meeting with someone and it’s delayed until 5 p.m., well, c’est la vie. They find another task to fill the time.

Newell is learning to better assimilate, too, though it’s impossible to blend in. With his wavy light-brown hair and pale skin, he sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. The camera that frequently trails him only exacerbates his conspicuousness.

“We’re just now starting to get the truth,” he says during an interview in Chicago near his Old Town home and down the street from Second City. He recently joined the comedy institution’s training center as program head for a new department that deals with TV, film and digital.

“I don’t live in [the Haitian] community and I come down and start asking questions; how objective am I really, right? So it’s just this time investment that we’ve needed to make in the community.”

Sabu agrees. “It always takes a lot of energy and a lot of work to find subjects and really let them know what you’re doing,” he says. Even when that is accomplished, he adds, gaining their trust is never easy.

Making the movie, “How to Build a School in Haiti,” has been costly, too, and will only get costlier. (Newell puts the total budget at around $550,000.) To that end, a March 2012 Kickstarter campaign garnered $8,000 to cover basic expenses, including air travel, lodging and a translator. Columbia College kicked in a bit of grant money as well, and a more recent Kickstarter campaign slightly exceeded its goal of $15,000. Newell is now accepting additional donations via the website

Down the line, he also plans to approach various high-profile Haiti aid groups (known as NGOs — Non-Governmental Organizations) in the hopes they’ll help spread the word about his documentary and cause. His list of targets includes Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization, Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Celebrity Haiti helpers Olivia Wilde, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Rainn Wilson are on Newell’s radar as well.

In the meantime, he’ll keep an eye on the school’s progress, shoot whatever else needs to be shot (a follow-up visit is planned for roughly nine months from now) and spend countless hours editing footage that ultimately, ideally, will tell a “nuanced story” and “move the needle” on universal issues he and Sabu feel are important — education chief among them.

“And if that means a little bit of short-term misery,” Newell says, “then that’s fine.”


Twitter: @MikeTScribe


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