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Sean Penn and Haiti: Love in the time of cholera

It’s Christmas Eve in Haiti, and while the rest of the world is slowing down, Sean Penn is speeding up.His fingers gripped tight on the handrail of a mud-splattered SUV, gulping cigarette smoke like oxygen, he’s wiry, intense, haggard, his hooded eyes alert to every move, emotions clenched tight as a fist, as his car lurches through a hilly slum, ironically named Bel Air.Half-naked children cl
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

It’s Christmas Eve in Haiti, and while the rest of the world is slowing down, Sean Penn is speeding up.

His fingers gripped tight on the handrail of a mud-splattered SUV, gulping cigarette smoke like oxygen, he’s wiry, intense, haggard, his hooded eyes alert to every move, emotions clenched tight as a fist, as his car lurches through a hilly slum, ironically named Bel Air.

Half-naked children clamber around the crumbling shacks. A family stews food on the porch of a building stamped with red letters, meaning it’s destined for demolition — only the place is still here, and so is the family.

It’s a bad set designer’s version of the apocalypse, except that it’s real — especially for Penn, 50, who’s been a fixture in Haiti since moving here almost immediately after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that threw the country into chaos, and the actor’s own life, too.

“There’s a great thing Paul Newman said about his long marriage,” he says wryly. “ ‘As it turns out, we still love each other.’ That’s how I feel: ‘As it turns out, I’m still here.’ ”

Hollywood Reporter slideshow: Celebrities helping in Haiti

He cracks a rare smile as we approach a small, newly erected school for about 300 children. Penn is here to meet its founder, a Haitian-American event producer funding the endeavor from his New York base who’s come to see the result, his exquisite Tunisian girlfriend in tow.

An enigmatic businessman. A 6-foot model. A school that’s open on Christmas Eve. It’s enough to make anyone wary, let alone the genetically cautious Penn.

“He wants us to contribute what we’ve got, a heavy-equipment team and a civil engineer,” he says. “But I don’t know. There’s a lot of people, and you don’t know where they’re coming from.”

Given this, it’s hardly a surprise that Penn holds back when the man, Unik Ernest, greets him warmly and leads him into the rough-and-tumble building. As we make our way through crevice-like hallways, he shows us a giant bowl of rice that provides these kids with one solid meal per day — a miracle in this impoverished town — and ushers us into a cramped classroom where nearly 50 children squeal with delight at seeing Penn.

Not Penn the actor: Penn the humanist. Penn the leader of a camp that houses 55,000 displaced persons. Penn the man whose rubble-busting machinery might turn this squalor into something bordering on the human.

One by one, the girls line up to kiss him. If Penn hesitates — he’s hardly the kiss-and-cuddle type, and cholera is a clear and present danger — he kisses them on the cheek nonetheless, with a disarming gentleness.

Then the girls sing: “We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!”

It will be a happy New Year for the kids. “We have a deal,” Penn tells Ernest. “We’ll make it happen.”

Doing so will mean bulldozing about four or five blocks. It also will mean working with a young man who has been lurking in the shadows. Small, with a lost gaze and listless manner, he seems rather sweet; it’s only later that I learn he runs one of the deadliest gangs in town.

“There are a lot of killers,” Penn shrugs. “But there’s fallibility in leadership by fear. So we sit down and go, ‘Your guy here, he brought us in, he cares,’ and he gets more power. It’s a lot better than threatening them with a machete.”

Machetes are not the average Hollywood star’s stock in trade. But no one has ever called Penn average, any more than the other Hollywood celebrities fighting for Haiti.

Nearly a year since George Clooney’s Hope for Haiti Now telethon raised $66 million for such organizations as Oxfam America, Partners in Health, the American Red Cross and UNICEF, several dozen Hollywood players have defied cynicism and are plunging into relief work, made harder by a recent hurricane and the cholera epidemic spreading into the capital of Port-au-Prince.

They range from Patricia Arquette, whose Give Love foundation is working on better sanitation and sending container homes for the displaced; to Ben Stiller, who’s building six schools through his Stiller Foundation; to Mel Gibson, the much-maligned star who quietly arranged a plane to ferry medical supplies.

While Hollywood activists frequently raise eyebrows among professionals, this group draws praise.

The telethon funds were allocated “brilliantly,” says Lisa Szarkowski, a spokesperson for UNICEF USA, which received $11 million. “They had us submit proposals for how we would spend that money. It was a really smart way of going about this.”

But while the NGOs are positive about Hollywood, Hollywood is anything but positive about many organizations working in Haiti. The United Nations, in particular, earns Penn’s wrath.

Hidden behind fortresslike walls, with armed guards posted on lookout at night, it’s one of the few moderately lit places in a city that’s engulfed in darkness, where locals pass through the surrounding streets like ghosts.

Penn sniffs at “the amount we’re getting done, versus what they’re doing — which is nothing. Quite honestly, if you want something done, do it yourself.”

Says Szarkowski: “I’m sure there are organizations that deserve to be criticized, and maybe celebrities, too. But everybody is doing their best.”

Paul Haggis, 58, is one of them.

The writer-director of "Crash" was among the first industry figures to become interested in Haiti, back in 2008 when he learned about the work of the Rev. Rick Frechette, a priest and doctor who had been toiling “for 20 years in the slums,” he recalls. “He’d just finished building a new children’s hospital, and I said, ‘I have to go see him.’ So I hopped on a plane and went to find him.”

Soon after, Haggis established Artists for Peace and Justice to spearhead educational efforts, probably the most active Hollywood-based nonprofit beside Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization. He has since persuaded more than 15 celebrities to pledge $50,000 a year for the next five years.

He vividly remembers learning about the earthquake itself. “I was sitting in my editing room in New York,” he says. “I started making some calls and put a little over $150,000 together, and I walked through SoHo with it in a brown paper bag.”

Later, “The State Department said they knew of someone flying a small plane out of Florida. So I went and waited. After a couple of days, I got on a plane, but it was turned around. There were so many flights coming in, the army had shut down the airport in Port-au-Prince.”

That’s when he heard Penn had booked two planes, one for 30 passengers and supplies, the other purely for cargo, and flew with him. When he arrived, “They’d imploded — the people, the bodies. It was horror upon horror upon horror. It looked like Dresden after the war.”

"Tron: Legacy" star Olivia Wilde experienced her own post-earthquake trauma.

Arriving around the same time as Haggis, she witnessed “surgery on a 3-year-old girl whose hand had been bitten by rats, because she was living in one of the tent camps, which were completely overrun.” The girl was brought to the Saint Damien Hospital, where her hand was stitched to avoid amputation. “I was struck by the terror, the sheer terror of this little girl before she was put to sleep,” Wilde says. “She had no idea where she was.”

Today, many Americans barely know where Haiti is, and even fewer remain invested in the aftermath of the quake.

As the world approaches the one-year anniversary of the 7.0 temblor, a quick scan online and on TV finds scant information. When Penn called me just before I flew out, warning that riots linked to the current elections might shut down the airport, there was very little to be found about it in any mainstream media. And when word spread that locals had been lynched — a response to rumors that witch doctors had caused the cholera — the news couldn’t be seen on any U.S. television broadcast.

Which perhaps explains why Maria Bello, another prominent Haiti supporter, brings a veritable media posse with her, including a video crew and a blogger from the Huffington Post, when she flies in two days after Christmas.

'The power to change your country'

It’s mid-morning and Bello, 43, is squeezed into a sweltering conference room with about 20 locals in the administrative offices of Cité Soleil, the most notorious Port-au-Prince slum.

A large, middle-aged Haitian woman is leading a colloquy of slum leaders as they talk to Bello and some of her aides from We Advance, a pro-women nonprofit she’s created. The woman is Barbara Guillaume, 49, a folk singer, former exile and current mayoral candidate.

At first, it’s just officials speechifying. And then one of the speakers addresses the problem of rape, how girls under age 18 — some as young as 2 — are victimized in the poorly lit slums and often too ashamed to come forward. Then another woman joins in, and another, and soon a local rapper is cheering them on, everyone’s pitching in, and it’s all the strong-minded actress can do to maintain order.

She urges them to provide contact information — everyone appears to have a cell phone, no matter how poor — and assures them: “I’m not Haitian, but this is my second home. Still, it’s you who have the power to change your country.”

Afterward, as we tour Cité Soleil, heading toward a women’s clinic Bello has set up that will open next week, I speak to Guillaume.

For a woman whose life has been under siege because of her outspoken politics and who has been physically attacked, she’s remarkably calm. “I have a lot of hope for Cité Soleil,” she explains, strolling past shacks made of cinder blocks and corrugated iron.

But danger is ever present. She recalls how “the people now in power crushed my car. Young people came armed while I was inside.” They started to batter the vehicle, smashing its windows. “Luckily, a young man climbed up on the car and said, ‘If you’re going to kill her, you’re going to kill me too.’ ”

Was she afraid? No, she says. “I’m already dead. My mother, my parents already say that: ‘She’s dead.’ When you live in Haiti and want to sacrifice yourself for the country, for the downtrodden, you have to think of yourself as dead.”

It’s a view that contrasts starkly with Guillaume’s colleague, Sister Marcella, 47, a down-to-earth Italian nun who has spent the past five years in the slum and whose own clinic has treated 1,200 cholera victims in recent weeks alone. Many have died, and more will if the cholera sweeping from the southeast further impacts the city.

We pause at the entrance to her little building, and I can’t help noticing that a bleach tray outside, designed to be stepped in to kill the disease, is almost empty. Has all this death and destruction shaken the sister’s faith?

Just the opposite, she says. A year ago, “My mother died, so I flew to Italy. That was hours before the earthquake. My mother saved me.”

She smiles. “The problem isn’t God, it’s the heart of man.”

A tiny film school

The heart of man is alive and well in Jacmel, a seaside city about 25 miles from Port-au-Prince, where a tiny film school has been founded by documentarian David Belle. The video crew trailing Bello trained here, so I set out to find it.

The road to Jacmel is long and winding; it takes me through Grand Rue, the most spectacularly devastated street of Port-au-Prince, where building after building looks as if it’s been bombed, then over lush green mountains, until, two-and-a-half hours later, I finally reach Jacmel, where a cliffside diving school has become the school’s headquarters.

The facilities are rudimentary: There are only five video cameras for several dozen students, and one is broken. But the students’ love of the place is palpable, which becomes clear when I meet Kaziah Jean, 26.

Unsure of her future, she was blown away when she saw a documentary Belle had made about a Haitian midwife, shown at the first Jacmel Film Festival in 2004. “These were films we weren’t used to seeing,” she marvels. “It was really stunning to see films about our people.”

Flush with enthusiasm, Kaziah tried to track Belle down. “I followed him everywhere,” she says. “But he was in a car; I wanted to speak to him, but I couldn’t.”

The following year, she enrolled in a free two-week class about moviemaking — and fell in love. When Belle subsequently set up his film school, supported by Haggis and Sofia and Francis Ford Coppola, she applied.

The response from her family was hardly what she expected. “My mother and older brother were against it,” Kaziah admits. Her parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and besides, “wanted me to enroll in a proper university.”

The school has become her life. Haggis arranged for her and other students to work on the post-earthquake video "We Are the World," and she’s made a living assisting foreign news crews.

“Now my family is glad,” she says. “I’m supporting them all.”

'He's crazy' ... He's a genius'

Sean Penn is supporting 55,000 more.

Back in Port-au-Prince, he walks me through the J/P HRO camp in Petionville, a once-affluent suburb, that has become his obsession. He pauses to look over what was previously a nine-hole golf club spread across several hills; it’s now sprinkled with 11,000 tarp-covered structures housing the displaced persons he and his group of about 50 volunteers and trained professionals oversee, along with a Haitian staff of 108.

The camp has become a veritable city of its own. There’s a medical unit whose hospital stays open 24/7; a tent where cholera victims are hooked to IV’s; an outdoor market; and even a red-light district — though neither red lights nor clients are present right now.

“This is SOP, standard operating procedure,” he shrugs. “When those things take place, it’s the beginning of economies.” Then he quips, “I know I’m going to have feminists screaming at me.”

As Penn walks on, a gun safely concealed inside his pants, children run up to greet him. “Hey you!” they call, or “seanpenn!” One leads me inside a tent — the local movie theater, where a television rigged to electrical wires hanging from trees shows a Jackie Chan picture, the screening times posted outside.

Timeline: A history of Haiti

Things like this elic it a smile from Penn. One of the 40-plus workers who share his nearby house laughs at his flashes of dark humor, recalling the time when he brought home a battery-operated tarantula and set it crawling across the floor.

Still, there’s an intensity to him, a profound seriousness that is his predominant mode and that’s what led him here in the first place.

After getting a text from a friend right after the earthquake alerting him, “Oh God, poor Haiti,” Penn started manning the phone. Within days, he had booked the two planes and arranged for doctors and medical supplies to accompany him.

“The airport was chaos,” he says. “As soon as you landed, another plane came in. The military was pulling off pallets, then they’d meet the next plane. Everything was going in all directions. And there’d been the big aftershock, so the port was closed.”

Penn stayed in a friend’s backyard, sending his doctors to one of the hospitals and speaking to Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, who “gave us a good map” of what to do.

Soon, he learned that some 35,000 locals had sought refuge at the golf club, where the military’s 82nd Airborne was based. Penn asked to be of service. “They said, ‘You can stay if you’re effective. If you stop being effective, we kick you out.’ ” He was so effective, he became camp manager.

At first, he says, he was promised $1 million from an entrepreneur, (the “J” in J/P HRO). But, he adds, most of the money never materialized and he ended up spending chunks of his own.

“I started paying for stuff,” he notes, “and that was when I thought, ‘OK, I better figure this out, because at this burn rate I’ll last about a week and a half.’ ”

Now Penn has received help from Oxfam and Save the Children, among other aid organizations. But the $450,000 a month it costs to run the camp — even more when heavy equipment is needed — is always perilously close to running out.

Security is critical. On one occasion, a gang from Cité Soleil heard the camp had received $80,000. Penn and his colleagues had to hold the gangsters at bay, though he won’t say how. As to the gang members in his camp, “We hardball the shit out of them,” he says. “One incident happens, and it’s an immediate hardcore response.”

Penn’s own hardcore response is harder to understand.

He claims “I didn’t have commitments, except for way in the future; I had nothing pressing,” as if this will make everything clear. But he admits, “I got practical issues, like everybody. I had two federal cases against me at the time, and one criminal one,” he says, referring to charges for illegal trips to Cuba and assaulting a paparazzo. Also, he says, about his former wife Robin Wright, “I had just got taken for one half of everything I had in the divorce, so it’s not like I don’t have to work.”

He says the divorce impacted him much more than his move to Haiti. “A much more profound change in life for me personally was not being able to raise my son in a whole family through high school,” he professes bitterly.

He describes how his involvement in Hurricane Katrina paved the way for this. But deeper motives are never addressed. “When I first came to Haiti, the decision was to go for two weeks,” he says. In fact, it’s been a whole year.

If he seems perpetually tired, who can blame him? He’s ordering supplies, arranging funds, supervising staff and figuring out what to do if a hurricane hits, as it almost did just weeks ago. Deep gashes of sleep deprivation line his face. His eyes seem half-closed with fatigue. And yet he keeps on going, chain-smoking his American Spirits like lifesavers.

“He’s crazy,” says one of his volunteers. ”He’s a genius,” says another.

Recently, after spending most of his time in Haiti, he has started to take breaks, alternating a few days in Malibu with a few days here. He’s also taken several weeks to shoot a film, This Must Be the Place. But always, he returns.

He speaks of a future when he might leave the camp in others’ hands, then wavers. On some level, he belongs here. “Let’s face it,” he admits, as the daylight begins to fade, “I’m a person that feels pretty alienated from the rest of the world and never felt understood by anyone.”

'There's no end point'

It’s night now. As we stroll through the camp one last time, bathed in newly installed lighting, pools of brightness intersecting with the dark, half-seen figures loom out of the shadows — children carrying pails of water, a woman nursing her baby.

“Bonsoir!” a man calls happily from behind the flap of his tent. “Bonsoir,” Penn replies.

The man has no idea this is a movie star. And no idea of the sacrifice it’s cost him to help. But Penn knows the difference he’s made. And knowing this means he’s stuck here. Forever.

“There’s no end point,” he says, drained to the point of collapsing. “This is where I’ll be when I’m not working, for the rest of my life.”