When Olivia Wilde comes into the studio, and sits down, her light-green cat's eyes settle on you with a steady gaze and a mix of curiosity, intelligence, and sensuality. When she speaks about the people of Haiti, her face flushes with tenderness. Her voice is low, measured, and always just a moment away from a throaty laugh. She goes to Haiti often, despite its current cholera epidemic, and is planning another trip shortly after our talk.
Olivia's career is in a thrilling "Wilde brush fire" phase. After roles on The O.C. and The Black Donellys, she was chosen to play the character nicknamed "13" on HOUSE, opposite Hugh Laurie, starred in Cowboys & Aliens with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, TRON: Legacy with Jeff Bridges and Michael Sheen, and currently has six films in post-production. Wilde truly loves Haiti, believes in the cause she speaks for and lends her whole self, not just, as many celebrities do, her name. Her beauty is complete, both inner and outer.
Olivia has teamed up with friends and fellow visionaries David Darg and Bryn Mooser to produce their film, Baseball in the Time of Cholera. What started out as a film about Haiti's first little league team, a small and personal story, soon took on international importance as a cholera epidemic quickly infected over 500,000 Haitian people.
And the story became even larger. At first it was uncertain what was causing the deadly and quickly spreading illness -- Haiti had never before suffered from cholera -- but it soon came to light that the Nepalese troops with the UN peacekeeping force had allegedly been dumping their sewage into the largest river in Haiti.
The irony is starkly painful: the UN has a budget of $800 million to help keep peace in a country that hasn't seen a war in over 50 years, but it is widely believed that as a direct result of the UN's actions, thousands of innocent civilians are now dying from a cholera outbreak.
The film begins on an intimate level, showing us Haiti's first little league team. We see the excitement of the boys, the happiness on their beautiful faces, and a genuine love of the game, just like little boys all over the world. But before long, the innocence of a child's love of sports is interrupted by the only outbreak of cholera Haiti has ever seen. And very quickly, it is rampant and dire. The victims are living by a huge river, but none of it is safe to ingest, and these people are literally dying of thirst. It is tragically reminiscent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink."
When the film begins, we meet our 14 year-old baseball team pitcher Joseph, who says proudly, "I love my life," a statement he's so passionate about that he has actually written it on his wall. Surprising news, given that he's taking us on a tour of the tent he lives in with 11 other people, with a single cement latrine, ever since the earthquake. Joseph is happily displaying for us why his life is beautiful, and the reason is that he still has the people he loves most around him: his parents, and sisters, Cindy and Lovely.
Eventually there comes a moment in the film where we see that Joseph's face has changed entirely. His mother has died violently, and in a matter of days, of cholera. And, immediately, we know two things: the first is that even though he's only 14, he's no longer a boy; his childhood has ended abruptly and forever. And the second thing we know is that he may never write down the phrase "I love my life" again. Or at least not for very long time. It's absolutely devastating.
As Joseph, who is technically still a child, (his favorite object is a little baseball statuette from Toronto) talks about how much he knows his mother loved him, and how hard she worked making jewelry to keep their family afloat, his grief overtakes him. And even though he's trying so bravely to hold them back, he gives in to hardened sobs, right there in front of the camera. It's impossible to watch, and not sit there and cry with him.
There is an enormous lawsuit led by human rights lawyer Mario Joseph against the UN for their alleged responsibility in the cholera outbreak for hundreds of thousands of Haitian victims. But how do you make reparations to the dead?
Bryn and David, how long have you two been living in Haiti?
Bryn: David came before me, I think two days after the earthquake. And I came about a month after the earthquake, and we've been there full-time ever since. Long enough to get frequent visits from Olivia.
When was the moment that you realized you had stumbled upon a truth that you needed to share with the world? That this was no longer just about baseball?
Olivia: I produced their film last year, and when they formed the little league baseball team, I said, "I want to be a part of whatever you guys do with this." A film came out of it, and I thought it was such a wonderful evolution to turn that story into the larger scandal of the UN bringing cholera to Haiti. I don't think many films can transform such a personal story into something that's so politically relevant. I think if you told people that you were showing a film about cholera, Haiti, and the UN, people would think it was going to be either totally devastating or completely dry. But this film brings you into the story from a unique place because it is a human story -- the effect that cholera has on this one particular family. Having met Joseph, his family, and his mother, you can understand why it's important to face this disease head-on and to take it seriously. I don't even think that the international community has been aware of cholera as the crisis that it is and has been. Even after people see the film they say to me, "I had no idea that cholera had even happened to Haiti, I thought that all of their troubles were simply from the earthquake."
Your film says that the UN has a budget of $800 million, and so far they have been unwilling to take responsibility. As I speak to you now, how many have been touched by the cholera epidemic in Haiti?
David: 530,000 people have been sickened, and we have lost over 7,030. But it is the rainy season right now, which is the cholera season, and the cholera has just spiked. This story is more pressing now than ever. We're really hoping with this film that we can apply pressure on the United Nations to take responsibility and to help the Haitian government to eradicate cholera. Which is certainly something that they have the capacity to do.
How do your families feel about your living in and visiting a country that is suffering such a terrible health epidemic? Cholera can kill a person in four hours. Most mothers would probably never get off the phone again until they had booked some kind of return ticket! (laughter)
Olivia: These two have sacrificed a lot, by moving out there. Not a lot of people have done that.
Bryn: My mom doesn't like that I'm gone all the time, and that she knows that she can't say anything about it, because I'd run away! (laughter) We try to talk as often as we can, and she's always so excited when I come back home. She lives on the border in Arizona near Mexico in a little cabin and she's always saying, "Come home and take long naps."
David: My parents are journalists, so they understand and have encouraged it for a long time. Baseball in the Time of Cholera has a very important message, which is that cholera was never in Haiti before 2010, when the peacekeepers brought it. People hear about cholera in Haiti and they think, "Oh it's just another of Haiti's problems," but it's not the fault of the Haitian people. Haiti has been dealt so many blows by other countries; it is such an abused nation. The first step is to say to the UN, "It is not okay to bring the cholera bug to Haiti, dump your sewage into the river, kill 7,000 people, and then deny that you did it, and try to get away with it."
There are two remarkable lawyers in the film, Mario Joseph and David Concannon, leading the Haitian people's lawsuit against the UN. Do you think that the UN will ever take responsibility?
Bryn: Brian Concannon from The Justice and Democracy of Haiti is a hero of all of ours as well. We genuinely hope that the United Nations will take responsibility for infecting the Haitian people and work with them to provide the clean water and sanitation that the Haitian people deserve. It's going to be a long battle. It's unprecedented for them [the UN] for them to take responsibility in this manner, but we're really hoping that the pressure will just be too much. We're starting to see that the pressure is really mounting.
David: It's a David and Goliath story. The UN have impunity and immunity in Haiti and here you have these poor peasants whose lives have been torn apart by this disease filing a lawsuit against one of the biggest organizations in the world, if not the biggest. Who technically have immunity. So it's a long shot. But it is such an important shot. We hope that the message of this film will join the voices of the Haitian people in trying to bring this issue to the forefront. This is one of the biggest environmental and humanitarian scandals of the last ten years, and something needs to be done about it.
Bryn: And this is also not just for Haiti, we really look at this as a fight for the world. This is a global fight. It's not just about how the UN behaves in Haiti. It's not just about how peacekeepers behaved in Haiti. It's about peacekeepers in the Congo, in Syria or wherever they're based. David touched on the environmental issues. Those are vital to the message that we're trying to get out, which is that in this day and age you cannot get away with dumping your waste into the largest water source for a country.
Olivia: It's also about accountability. The UN should have to stand up and apologize not only to the Haitian victims but also to understand that they're being held accountable all around the world for their actions. I think with this film and with the energy surrounding it, and with all of the voices together, hopefully this will cause a major shift within the UN. For them to understand that people are noticing, that they're seeing; this is the most important thing we can do. I think this film is a very powerful beacon, it really is something that touches people's hearts, but hopefully it's also a call to action.
Bryn: And there is a petition that we have called Undeny.com. We're hoping that people will sign it.
Olivia, how did Haiti come into your periphery?
Olivia: My mom is a journalist and she did a piece for CBS news in 1987. I went with her after that, and fell in love with Haiti. And then Bryn and I met the same people in LA who gave us an opportunity to go to Haiti and to be useful. Then I started going every few months. It's definitely one of my favorite places on earth. There is so much beauty, in addition to its troubles. Hopefully the film will allow people to see the beautiful side of Haiti, and the people. And maybe go there themselves and see why it's a country worth saving, acknowledging, and caring about instead of allowing it to be swallowed up into the pit of poverty. It's been like that for too long.
And the amazing thing is that it's all doable. The UN does have this incredible budget, if they could allocate a huge chunk of that to eradicating cholera, they could also eradicate several other waterborne diseases. Through sanitation water projects, they could save thousands of innocent lives. And then Haiti could start getting back on its feet. There are so many projects that David and Bryn are involved with that are all about sustainable health. This is not just a Band-Aid. This is about allowing this country to thrive in the way it really can and should. The people there are incredible. I love it there. I'm excited to go next week, and we'll be going there for the rest of our lives.
Bryn: We do love being in Haiti, so every morning that I'm there when I wake up, despite the problems, I feel so honored to be able to live and work in Haiti and to call it my home. And my friends there are my family. It's an extraordinary place to live, I wouldn't trade it for all the office cubicles in the world!! (laughter)
I want you each to tell me quickly your favorite thing about Haiti. I think you're right; most of us are so overwhelmed by its problems that we've lost sight of its beauty.
To watch all three of your faces is to see that you genuinely love it. What is it for you?
Olivia: The people.
David: The weather, the music, the culture, the beaches.
ONE thing! (laughter)
Bryn: The arts. And that it makes you feel very alive, when you're there. It's so easy in western modern life to get into a grind. Everything comes so easily. But when you have to struggle a bit to survive, it makes you feel very alive and every day is different.
The lawyer Mario Joseph (called by the New York Times Haiti's most prominent Human Rights Lawyer) says he'll never stop fighting for the poor people of Haiti, and tells us about an important phrase from Haitian history that means "Power to the People." How do you say it in Creole?
Bryn: "Viktwa pou Pép la"
That's the one.
Official website: http://www.baseballinthetimeofcholera.com/Baseball/HOME.html
Sign the petition to help fight cholera in Haiti: http://www.baseballinthetimeofcholera.com/Baseball/TAKE_ACTION.html
For more of photographer Leslie Hassler's work: http://lesliehassler.com
Follow Cynthia Ellis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CynthiaJEllis