CNN Anchor Soledad O'Brien came to Hollywood recently to premiere her upcoming doc, Rescued which airs on May 8th on CNN. The program is a moving look at the suffering in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, and follows the saga of a young girl named Cendy who is cared for in an orphanage run by an American couple. O'Brien answered some questions exclusively for the Huffington Post:
Q: What made you decide to make this documentary?
A: The story of Haiti's earthquake is so big and complicated. I arrived in Haiti just a few days after the earthquake and it was immediately clear to me that the plight of Haiti's orphans was the story I had focus on. Those problems existed before the quake--child slavery and poverty so intense it caused parents choose which children they'd care for and which to abandon. I was very compelled to tell the story of Haiti's orphans the moment I visited the first orphanage. Secondly, we had great footage from a young man who'd been shooting at one orphanage--The Lighthouse--a few years earlier. We met in Haiti, and I knew his footage documenting day-to-day life at this particular orphanage would help us put together a more complete portrait.
Q: How does being a mother of four yourself influence your desire to do a story like this?
A: I hope that any good journalist would say--this is a story that people need to know about. But as a mother--I guess any parent full grasps the horrible choice in handing off your child because you just can care for him because you have no job, and a result, no food. It's heartbreaking. We capture some of those moments in this documentary: a mother who begs to stay in the orphanage. But they can't take her--it's already too crowded. The orphanage is also running out of food. So, she hands over her infant--"please take him". It's so powerful and so desperately sad.
Q: You have called the aid provided to Haitian orphanages as band-aids and not solutions. In your mind what is the solution?
A: It was only band-aids the first time I was there. People would stop by with enough rice and water for a day or two, well after the first week of the quake. It's improving. In my second visit, more than a month after the earthquake, the markets were coming back, the banks were opening. What's the solution for orphans and street kids? To make sure that their welfare is placed first at the top of concerns. Haiti cannot rebuild--long term--without addressing the restavek situation or without figuring out how to care for hundreds of thousands of children, and their parents, frankly. They need jobs, trades, education. Building more and more orphanages isn't a viable option. Adopting hundreds and thousands of infants and children out of the Haiti isn't a viable solution either.
Q: We are used to negative portrayals of missionaries in the media especially with the scandals in the Catholic Church. Did the work of the missionaries surprise you in any way? Did your perceptions of them change, before and after your visit?
A: No--my uncle was a missionary in Papua New Guinea many years ago. I was well aware that there were some missionaries doing tremendous work and others who were not. The missionaries I met in Haiti ran the same range. Many were just trying to make progress in a dire situation, and survive a disaster with not much immediate help. Some were very critical--angry even--with Haitian locals. Others want to stamp out local customs. Others gave everything they had. Like human beings in general--they run the range. At the Lighthouse, what impressed me the most was the focus of Bill and Suzette Manassaro, as they cared for the two orphans we follow, 6 year old Cendy Jeune and 22 year old Marc Kenson Oliphi. (Cendy and Marc's voice overs, by the way, were done by Edwidge Danticat and Wyclef Jean.) The orphan directors were very focused and struggled tremendously to figure out where to draw the line--was it 58 orphans? Or 60 orphans? Could they feed another child? I also admired the Lighthouse's commitment to raising Haitian children in Haiti by feeding, educating, and training them for jobs. If these kids are to be part of Haiti's future, they'll have to be prepared for that.
Q: What is the call to action for your show? What do you want viewers to do after they've watched your program?
A: My role as a journalist is to tell the true, sometimes hard story, so people can understand the nuance of a very complicated story, and speak intelligently about it. Lots of Americans gave money to support Haiti. We, as a people, clearly care about the people there. We can not let this story die. If we can keep the spotlight on these orphans it will hopefully aid the situation. We're also directing our viewers who want to help to CNN.com/impactyourworld.
Q: Do you recommend any organizations or groups that have been especially effective?
A: CNN.com/impactyourworld has a great list of organizations and charities that have been well vetted.
Q: How do you explain the difficulties you report on to your children?
A: My children are young, ages 9, 8 and 5 year old twins. We talk a lot about the stories I'm covering and the work I'm doing. They've seen the documentary and were riveted--all four kids! Then watched it again! It's a story anyone of any age can understand. I think they feel good about the stories I tell--they get to ask lots of questions (the main one is "did babies die") and we discuss in great depth the why. Why slavery? Why poverty? Why hurricanes? Why earthquakes? I can't always answer the questions but we always discuss the issues. I think that they're developing a special understanding about the world through the stories I tell.
Q: What role does your faith play in your reporting-especially as you go to troubled spots like Haiti?
A: Hmmm that's a good question. I've always been a fairly religious person. I'm not sure I could handle this job if I weren't. But I confess that I sometimes feel very hopeless in the middle of disasters. I definitely have lots of questions (for God when I get to meet him, hopefully) about why terrible things seem to sometimes happen to people least able to handle them. But I'm always--always, brought back around by the regular folks who do amazing things--rescuers, volunteers, people who just give of their time day in and day out, often with little or no recognition. They are truly amazing.
Q: Will you be doing more documentaries like this for CNN in the future?
A: Yes! We have a full slate! After Rescued, we air "Gary & Tony Have A Baby" on June 24. That will be followed by a documentary in August about the 5th year anniversary of Katrina called New Orleans Rising. In October we have another Black in America documentary called Churched. But first, I plan to go back to Haiti next month with my 9-year-old daughter Sofia.
Q: When does it air?
A: Rescued airs on Saturday, May 8, at 8p EST on CNN.