Posted on by Peter Rettig

A French arte.TV Movie and Memories of Haiti and Hotel Oloffson

Arte TV pageAs readers of previous blog posts e.g., 7 iPad apps we Like for Watching German and French Movies know, we like the site. I recently watched the 2011 documentary "Hotel Haiti," which played for a few days on the arte channel.

This 2011 German TV movie (which includes footage taken during 2003 and never shown before) tells the story of the Hotel Oloffson, a Hotel in Port-au-Prince and, with it, also Haiti's history over the last 110 years. While the movie narration can be played in French or German (change setting top left), there are also quite a number of English dialogs.

The movie brought back memories of my stay in Haiti and also reminded me that with the fifth anniversary of the earthquake approaching, much still needs to be done. (sorry, the link to the ARTE movie does not work any longer!

Before the Earthquake

I stayed in the Oloffson in 1974 when visiting the island for a second time. Hotel Oloffson Garden(picture of Hotel garden by Daniel Morel)  

We could easily communicate in French with our Haitian friends but did not make much progress with Haitian Creole, the other official national language of Haiti.

During the seventies, after “Baby Doc” had “inherited” the dictatorship from his father “Papa Doc,” Haiti experienced a short period of economic recovery with over 150 US firms operating on the island.

At that time and together with some American and Haitian friends, I had briefly considered starting a construction business there.

It was during a work session with our Haitian friends in a small office building in Port-au-Prince that we experienced a brief tremor: While we foreigners thought that a big passing truck caused the building to shake, the Haitians new better and ran out to the street.

The Oloffson, by then, already had a stormy history behind it: Built at the end of the 19th century as the residence for the Sam family (which provided two Haitian presidents), it then served as an army hospital during the US occupation between 1915 and 1935.

It became a hotel in 1935 when Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain, leased it from the Sam family and, as the movie narrates, the hotel then passed on through several hands.

Many rooms are named for famous guests, including Graham Greene, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Buffet, Lillian Hellman, et al.. This Hotel Oloffson Wikipedia entry and the Bloomberg Businessweek article Graham Greene Would still adore This Hotel  give further details.

After the Earthquake

When the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, the Oloffson guests were quite lucky.

The wood structure withstood the tremors much better than most other concrete and masonry buildings. This Economist article, "Haiti's hallowed hotel" (March 2011) gives another summary.

Clintom & PrevaHillary and Bill Clinton also visited the Oloffson. Interestingly, their special relationship to Haiti is traced back to their honeymoon in Haiti in 1975 in this Washington Post article of January 16, 2010.

The arte.TV movie also recalls some wild stories that are circulating in the streets of Port-au-Prince about Hillary's and Bill's “debt” to Haiti. The Clinton Foundation reports that it has raised already over $34 million for Haiti (but Clinton's policies while President and his current efforts also have critics in the black community.)

We'll soon be nearing the 5th anniversary of the January earthquake and much still remains to be done. The natural disaster has spurred many international help efforts, including one that a former colleague of mine is involved in: Creating Sustainable Healthcare for Haiti.

The non-profit organization has several projects on the drawing board, the most imminent one is opening a healthcare clinic at the Fondation Montesinos in Titanyen, an orphanage of 80 Children. (Donations are welcome and can be made directly on the site.)

The Future

According to reports from our friends who have been there, progress can be observed but is very slow.Haiti -earthquake victim camp

Nearly five years after more than 100,000 people lost their lives and over 2 million became homeless, so much remains to be done. Water, sanitation, and electricity distribution remain challenges.

While many have moved back into some kind of home, more than 100,000 still live in temporary structures and tents. (picture left by AFP/Getty Images: Boys at a camp in Petionville, Haiti)

As I watched the arte TV movie about the Hotel Oloffson and Haiti, I was also reminded how easily we forget events and disaster when they don't appear regularly in the news. And especially during this Holiday season and with the fifth anniversary of the earthquake approaching, it's a good time to think about what we can do to help.