Find A Way To Make It Acute

drama, features, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.

Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.

No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.

With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.

If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?

The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.

The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.

  • AVB

    I have been talking about Haiti for years. Trying to get people to listen was one of the first times in my life I felt entirely powerless with the information I held in my hands. I spent five years working on a documentary called “The Agronomist.” It was my second industry-related job. I was 18 years old. I met the most incredible survivors, artists, activists, human beings. They all spoke with passion about their politics and their country. Despite all of her flaws, Haiti was their home. A home we helped to screw up with our political agenda. The stories I heard during interviews we conducted or transcribed were truly gut-wrenching. All I could do was sit there and listen. But Haitians are proud people. Even in their darkest hours. At the end of every interview the person would pop out of their seat and keep talking to us, to anyone who would listen about how beautiful their messed up country was. Like the problem child you can’t help but love.

    The first Creole phrase I learned was Sak pase (what’s up?) to which the common response is “Map boule” (literally translating into “I’m on fire/I’m hot/I’m ready to roll”). It was that fighting spirit and passion which kept me connected to Haiti even beyond my time working on that documentary. Haiti was once a beautiful country. A vacation destination, a center for art and culture. But it hasn’t been that way in many decades. The only Haiti people now know is the one that lies in rubble and tragedy. Sometimes sensational is too senseless.

    • juliebush

      It’s amazing how many interests we have in common Ashley. I would love to talk to you about Haiti some time. Let me know if you ever come to LA as I would love to buy you a drink …. and thanks for posting such an interesting, thoughtful response here. You just described the country so well.
      Julie