Aug 11, 2010
by Brian Thompson, '95
Documentary filmmaker travels to Haiti to chronicle earthquake’s aftermath
It opens with the sound of lapping waves and shots of a serene, glassy bay. Colorful sheets are laid out on the beach. People walk beneath swaying palms. A child strolls along the sand. A man works on a fishing net by the shore. A boy in a striped shirt stands with arms crossed, staring into the camera.
And you have to wait for it — half an agonizing minute — before you finally get what you know is coming: scenes of destruction from the magnitude 7 earthquake that tore apart Haiti in January.
That slow intro, along with a total lack of music and long, often uncomfortable montages, were all intentional, said filmmaker and Flagler alumnus Dustin Miller, ‘04.
“I think documentaries a lot of time over-explain themselves,” he said of the stripped-down approach he took to the documentary, which tells the stories of survivors. “They don’t let the images just do their thing. That was the consensus early on, that these images were powerful enough [on their own].”
Miller shot the 13-minute documentary in Haiti just three weeks after the temblor killed more than 200,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless. He called the film “35 Seconds” — the amount of time it took the earthquake to tear the country apart.
From the peaceful, opening scenes in the coastal town of Petit-Goâve, the film moves on to jaw-dropping destruction in Port-au-Prince.
“Words can’t express how bad it is,” he said. “The buildings that are still standing are really cracked, and people are still scared to go inside them. It couldn’t have happened in a worse spot in this part of the world.”
But Miller said “35 Seconds,” which he showed at Flagler College’s Communication Week this past spring, isn’t about the destruction he saw or even the quake itself. Rather, its real focus is on the people he encountered — their stories of survival, hardship and hope.
“The only game plan was to go and tell people’s stories and just see what [they] had to say,” he said.
Scenes of the devastation — the tent cities made of bed sheets; the piles of rubble in the street; the damaged buildings leaning at improbable, gravity-defying angles — are interspersed with the stories of survivors he met while traveling for five days with fellow alum Eric Hires, ‘08, and friend Nathan Lewis.
“We just talked to folks and basically asked them what happened that day,” he said. “A majority of people literally thought it was the end of the world.
“I think everyone we talked to either had an immediate family member or a close friend not make it. We heard a story of one guy who lost five kids. You don’t even know what to say. For me it was the little details, like the mom who held her daughter so tight that [the girl’s] clothes tore. It sounds so little, but you think of that mother’s reaction and love. It became more real. It was powerful.”
Miller said the idea for the film came to him shortly after he heard news of the scale of the quake.
“Right after it happened, just like anybody, I wanted to do something,” he said. “Instantly I was thinking, ‘I need to go and tell stories.’ ”
He didn’t really think too much about it and pushed the idea aside. But he couldn’t completely shake it, and Hires kept encouraging him to do it.
“My wife said, ‘I think you kind of need to go,’ ” he remembers about that final push that prompted him to get in touch with a missionary friend in Haiti.
The project was definitely a bit of a departure for the St. Augustine-based filmmaker, who works on everything from surf films with the likes of professional surfer Dane Reynolds to a nonprofit organization called “To Write Love on Her Arms” that helps people battling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.
But in spite of all he experienced in Haiti, Miller said he was struck by a sense of hope, and just how resilient and inspiring the people he met were.
He is now planning to enter the documentary into film festivals. It was shown at an Atlanta art gallery’s Haiti benefit this past May, and he is also working with an art center in Virginia to show it.
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