From the Director

Sam Lee & Brooke Stevens

Sam Lee & Brooke Stevens

In 2008, I bumped into two clowns on a rooftop in India and was intrigued when they announced they were from an organization called Clowns Without Borders. They said they were volunteers going to countries in crisis and putting on shows for children. While I was excited to meet them, I was less convinced about their brand of charity. As far as I understood, the purpose of aid was to provide basic necessities like food, medicine and shelter to people who were in desperate need. Clown Aid seemed as absurd as their pratfalls and pretty hard to justify with so many life and death demands in the world.

To satisfy my curiousity, in 2009, with video camera in hand, I took a plane to Haiti, a country I knew very little about, with three clowns. Over the course of three weeks, I followed the clowns and documented their performances in orphanages, schools and hospitals. I got to know each of them pretty well and through interviews discovered their views on charity and the role they felt they played in the world of giving to others. At the same time, I got to see a country that as far as I could tell was a disaster.

There was barely any infrastructure in Haiti. Eighty percent of the people lived in poverty and there was an underlying sense of desperation from years of corrupt leaders that had done little to improve quality of life. But Haiti was swarming with aid organizations, many who boasted having been there for 30 years.

It was clear to me that aid was really what kept the country going and that Haitians had come to rely heavily on it for jobs and all their basic needs. Thirty years of aid had not provided Haiti with the tools to stand on its own. I had seen pamphlets quoting the phrase “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So what happened in Haiti? With all that help why was the country still on its knees?

Through my research I learned there was a problem with the aid industry itself. Linda Polman in her book “The Crisis Caravan” referred to aid organizations as “businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa.” There seemed to be plenty of examples where instead of solving problems, aid organizations were hindering the country’s growth and maintaining the need for aid.

On January 12th 2010, Haiti’s capital city was hit by a massive earthquake. In the aftermath of the quake the clowns decided to change their mission in Haiti. Instead of putting on shows, they wanted to do something that might have a more lasting impact. So in August 2010, I returned with four clowns who would lead workshops to teach Haitians performance skills and imagination games that could be passed on to children in the community. Their hope was that humor could help to alleviate post traumatic stress.

The true test of the clowns’ work came when I went back a year later in 2011 to find the Haitians who had been in the clown workshops. I wanted to know if the experience had given them anything, improved their lives or helped them and their families in any way. It was this final investigation that answered some of the questions that came up for me in India. Suffice it to say that while sending in clowns may seem like a crazy idea, it not the most absurd form of aid in Haiti.

— Sam Lee