Published July 27, 2012
“Ale, ale! Go!” A baseball bat falls to the ground as the hitter takes off in his over-sized sandals towards first base. Eyes wide, flip-flopped foot steady on the base, the first baseman opens his glove to catch the baseball being hurled in his direction. The baseball grazes the glove of the first baseman, but he can’t hold it and the ball rolls to the overgrown outfield as the runner continues to second.
From the sidelines, Bryn Mooser looks at David Darg while simultaneously laughing and groaning, “Oh, we really need to work on our catching.”
Darg and Mooser are American aid workers, film directors and part-time baseball coaches. Their documentary, “Baseball in the Time of Cholera,” is currently making waves on the Internet—hailed by some as the next big thing in viral advocacy. In 28 minutes, the film tackles the alleged role of United Nations peacekeeping forces in introducing cholera to Haiti and starting an epidemic that has accumulated a death toll of over 7,000 people.
But originally, it was just going to be a film about baseball.
“We started this little league team of the kids, the scrappy kids from the camps that we were meeting on the streets, and it took off really well…they loved it,” smiles Darg. “And although Bryn and I aren’t the best athletes ourselves, we kind of knew some of the rules and tried to teach them as best we could.”
“And then made up the rest of the rules,” adds Mooser. The Tabarre Tigers, as the team came to be known, is the only little league baseball team in all of Haiti. They practice on an empty lot, once a camp for those displaced by the January 2010 earthquake.
Darg, the vice president of international operations for the non-profit Operation Blessings, and Mooser, the country director for Artists for Peace and Justice, arrived in Haiti just after the quake. When cholera struck a mere ten months later, both were involved in aid efforts—Darg working on clean water and Mooser assisting in the assembly of one of the largest cholera treatment centers in Port-au-Prince.
“The baseball team has really been a pet project of ours. We’ve had several in addition to our day jobs as aid workers, and I think we’re most passionate about this one,” says Darg. “When it started we realized it was quite a cool story—how these kids were learning this new skill, and it is a new sport in the country. So we started documenting the progression of the team.” The two directors shot footage of the team for a year, with a special focus on 17-year-old team captain Joseph Alvyns.
“All of that changed one really difficult day, when Joseph called me in the morning and he goes, ‘David, my mother has died of cholera.’”
The death was a shocking wake-up call to the directors. “There was…so much death,” says Mooser. “We saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, with no exaggeration, of people who died of cholera, and helped bury them. And that takes a toll, but it wasn’t really illuminated until we lost Marie Claude. . . . In being so close to her we saw this human side of every single one of those bodies that we helped to bury.”
With a year’s worth of footage of Joseph and the rest of the Tabarre Tigers, Darg and Mooser set out to craft a film that would tell the story of cholera in Haiti through the experience of an individual. Footage of Joseph before the loss of his mother is intertwined with news broadcasts of startling numbers and flashing images—the two stories seem a world apart. In a poignant scene, Joseph is on the phone with his mother while he is in Canada to throw the first pitch at the Toronto Blue Jays game. Joseph mentions that it is cold in Toronto, and in a quintessentially motherly way, Marie Claude asks if he packed a jacket. Just three weeks after that trip, Joseph is motherless.
“It boiled down to big numbers: 7,000 people have died of cholera so far since 2010 and 500,000 people have been infected—those are tragic numbers, but it’s difficult for even us to comprehend what those really mean,” says Darg. “But when you see it through the eyes of Joseph, what this has done to one family and one individual, you really get a sense of the tragedy and the scandal that surrounds what has happened here.”
Before the October 2010 outbreak, cholera had not been recorded in Haiti in over a century. The diarrheal disease that kills with startling swiftness began to appear rapidly in rural communities alongside the Artibonite, Haiti’s largest river. As doctors and aid workers struggled to figure out why a disease that hadn’t been seen in Haiti in recent memory was racking up a body count in the thousands, the news outlet Al Jazeera released a report stating that a troop of UN peacekeepers from Nepal (a country where cholera is endemic) had a sewage leak on their base, located right on the bank of the Artibonite.
“The United Nations is denying that they had anything to do with [the outbreak], yet they’re the only organization with enough resources to put an end to the cholera,” says Darg, visibly frustrated. “Still today people are dying. Right now people are dying of cholera.” A legal case against the United Nations was filed in November 2011, seeking water infrastructure for the country, reparations for the individual victims, and an apology. With a growing list of victims pursuing the case (currently about 15,000), lawyer and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti Brian Concannon hopes this is the case that is “too big to fail.”
When “Baseball in the Time of Cholera” received a Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April, Darg and Mooser decided to release the film online, free to the public.
After witnessing the unprecedented rise (and fall) of the viral advocacy campaign #KONY2012 in March 2012, the directors hope that their film can garner enough web attention to put added pressure on the UN. Star power of executive producers actress Olivia Wilde and entrepreneur Elon Musk, as well as supporters like actor Rainn Wilson and actress Rosario Dawson, helped spread the word through the cyber-sphere when the film was released on July 12. Along with the film, which is being marketed with the double-entendre hashtag #undeny, viewers can sign a petition urging the UN to address the issue of cholera in Haiti.
In Haiti just three weeks prior to the film release, there is little sense that big changes may be coming. Joseph is still the team captain. He and his teammate Japhney sit in the kitchen of the Operation Blessings compound watching a VH1 documentary about rapper Lil Wayne on YouTube before baseball practice. When Darg asks Joseph how he feels about being famous, he just laughs and shrugs.
At a screening of the film in Washington D.C. a week after its release, a torrential downpour begins just a half-hour before the film is scheduled to start. Darg and Mooser, clad in blazers and collared shirts—a stark contrast to their wardrobes in Haiti, eye the door of the auditorium as soaked guests trickle in.
Raindrops slam against the windows as viewers inside the Johns Hopkins auditorium watch Joseph’s story on a large projection screen. After the film, Darg starts off the panel discussion: “As we look at this rain,” begins Darg, “we’re reminded of how fortunate we are that in this nation, a rain like this comes and goes with no consequence. But in Haiti, this kind of rain would spell the spread of cholera. And it was that cholera that claimed the life of Marie Claude.”
Darg admits the film isn’t taking off in the fashion in which they had hoped. He mentions that celebrities are still nervous about endorsing a piece of advocacy after all that happened with #KONY2012. But the view count on the video continues to climb, and the directors have no intention of allowing the film to flatline. Last Friday, a day after Mooser and Darg screened the film for members of Congress, 104 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to UN ambassador Susan Rice urging her to take the lead in responding to the cholera crisis in Haiti. This week, they will be traveling to London to screen the film at an Olympic venue.
“We hope the world really pays attention to the fact that this is a tragedy, this is a crisis and this is a scandal, and collectively we use our voice to put pressure on the UN to take action and end this once and for all,” says Darg.