For much of the world, Haiti was pushed into the spotlight after the January 2010 earthquake. But Haiti was on Rachel Smith’s mind long before that tragedy, which killed 220,000 Haitians and left 1.2 million people homeless.
Smith, a University of Mississippi MFA student from Seattle, began working in 2007 on “MINUSTAH Steals Goats,” a documentary film she wrote, directed and produced about Haitian neighborhoods within the capital of Port-au-Prince. Shot from her point of view as an outsider, Smith’s film follows Enock, president of a community organization in the slum of Cite Soleil, as he seeks development aid for his neighborhood, an area famous for gang violence. She also shadows two UN peacekeepers, an American and a Brazilian, as they work towards security and stability.
As the film progresses, the challenges Smith experiences begin to parallel those of the peacekeepers. The film questions whether peace can be sustained while people live in severe poverty, and how well an outsider can understand the nuances of a place enough to help.
“I went there with the intention of at least investigating the possibility of making a documentary. I was really fascinated by these peacekeepers and what had happened — socially and politically —that necessitated a 10,000-strong peacekeeping force that maintains security and stability,” Smith said. “You live in the U.S., and you can’t imagine seeing soldiers pointing guns at every person who walks down the street; it’s just bizarre. But as with anywhere you might go, you find things about the culture and the people that are illuminating, things that humble you.
“I loved being in Haiti and learning about Haiti and experiencing the things I experienced there. But the thing that has affected me most is the time I spent with people there, and the way my interest was so reciprocated. The people I worked with wanted to let me in, in a way that was really moving.”
Before starting work on her MFA at Ole Miss, she would return to Haiti for about a month at a time each year, learning more about the place and its people with every visit. Not everything she saw was pleasant.
“In the beginning, in a lot of the places where I spent time, it was all shocking,” she said. “Haiti has the reputation for being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. The lack of opportunity, no public schools, no money, no jobs, very little food, very little clean water. You can see the ubiquitous commercials for NGO’s working in the developing world, but it is a different thing to be there and sit down in these people’s houses and have them share their food with you. I was initially shocked by the severity of the poverty.”
Last spring, two months after the earthquake, the UM English department and the Office of Student Affairs awarded grants that allowed her to return to Haiti to shoot additional footage. She returned again to film the devastation, which are the final scenes of the documentary.
Micah Ginn, producer-director for UM’s Media and Documentary Projects, said “MINUSTAH Steals Goats” makes Haiti a reality.
“We all have a passing idea about the story of Haiti and Rachel’s documentary gives a firsthand, eye-opening experience – a very vivid look at the Haitians,” Ginn said. “When you see the actual story this documentary puts forward, it’s fantastic. It helps you understand the world.”
Last month, the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, selected Smith’s finished documentary to be screened. Of the 3,200 submissions the festival received, the film is among 280 selections and one of the 84 world premieres. It is screening this weekend in the “Reflecting Images: Panorama” program, which presents “films that are thought-provoking in form and choice of theme.”
Smith, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington, said she was thrilled by the news. She has traveled to Amsterdam for the festival, and it will be her first time to see the film on the big screen.
“I opened my computer and saw the acceptance e-mail and I was in shock,” she said. “I called my boyfriend and cried.”
After earning a certificate in documentary film production and attending documentary school in Prague, she worked in the television and film industry in New York City. She started the UM three-year MFA program in fiction in fall 2009 and says she is very happy to be in Oxford. The late Barry Hannah taught her for one semester, as well as UM faculty members Tom Franklin, John Brandon and Beth Ann Fennelly. Next semester, she looks forward to studying under Jack Pendarvis and visiting Grisham writer Jesmyn Ward.
“I have to say that if I had not come here, and learned everything I’ve learned about narrative, I would not have made the film that I made. No chance,” Smith said. “I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here and I just continue to be amazed by how much better my writing gets and how much better it still can get. I’ve heard graduates of the program say this is the best program in the country, and there is absolutely nowhere else I’d rather be.”
For more information, go to http://www.minustahmovie.com.