Graham Greene’s name is never mentioned during Lior Etziony and Michal Hanuka’s documentary Call For Help, but it’s impossible to watch it without thinking of him. Call For Help is filled with people—Americans—Greene could have written, all unflappable optimism and disastrous good intentions. The film is set during the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but it could just as well have been set anywhere. Its subject is not specifically what happened in Haiti, but the power vacuum that any catastrophe of that scale creates, and the people who rush to fill it. Haiti after the earthquake no longer has a civil society or socio-political hierarchy. It’s a new frontier, and as any good American knows, frontiers need cowboys.
In this case, the cowboys are the members of the Global Disaster Immediate Response Team (Global DIRT), an ad hoc Non-Governmental Organization created by a baby-faced ex-Marine named Adam. The film opens with Adam and his team transporting two injured children from one hospital to another on a rainy night. Only Global DIRT can do this job; NGOs registered with the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs observe a curfew to reduce the risk of kidnappings. As is usual for Adam, he ends up saying more than he means to:
“We’re not an OCHA NGO, so we don’t have a curfew. I kinda grew up really without guidance from parents, so I’ve never really dug that whole thing. So I don’t want the U.N. to be my parents, so we do what we want.”
So far, so good. Even if he seems to be working out some parental issues in Haiti, Global DIRT’s freewheeling style lets the group react more quickly than other organizations, and it’s clearly doing some good. But as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that there’s a dark side to making up the rules as you go. Adam describes their mission as “mass redistribution of aid, food, and medical supplies,” but when asked where the supplies are coming from, he gets cagey. Later, he bluffs and bullies his way onto an airport tarmac—dropping the names of Sean Penn and the president of Haiti, telling officials he’ll have them fired—and loads a truck with crates of fruit cups before the customs officials figure out he’s not supposed to be there.
There was a real problem with humanitarian aid being held up at customs, but there’s cutting through red tape and there’s robbery, and in Call For Help, Global DIRT seems to err on the side of robbery. And kidnapping: Some of the patients they transport have doctors who would just as soon have them stay where they are. Etziony and Hanuka film Adam and his team as they walk in, tell the Haitians they’re doctors, and load the patient into the back of a pickup truck. “If you just act official and carry a stethoscope, people don’t ask too many questions a lot of times,” another member explains.
Of course, that’s half of the appeal: The post-disaster chaos creates a world where acting official is enough to grant real authority. Etziony and Hanuka are as interested in the sorts of people who are attracted to this sort of vacuum as they are in Global DIRT’s exploits. The film tracks several members of the team; virtually everyone seems to be running from something in their life back home, whether it’s a stifling relationship, troubled home lives, substance abuse, or simply no real sense of direction. In Haiti, not only do they not have to follow any rules, they’re suddenly high-status: “People ask us for help that wouldn’t even look twice at us at home,” another Global DIRT member explains.
It’s rich territory, and Etziony and Hanuka manage to make both the film’s action sequences and its interviews compelling and interesting. But Call For Help drags in its second half, particularly in an interlude back in the States that makes the same point over and over again. And then there are the Haitians. Global DIRT employs locals as translators, mechanics, and security, and the most heartbreaking scenes in the film are the ones where they realize in fits and starts that the organization may not be as legitimate as they were led to believe. So it’s jarring to see sequences like the shots of a street musician (featured twice) that treat the Haitians as essentially local color. But Etziony and Hanuka regain control of the film in its quietly devastating epilogue. There’s another thing about frontiers: They close.