Hope in the soap that has Haitians glued to the TV

Under the Sky has all the drama of EastEnders, and explains how to keep the rats at bay. Guy Adams reports from Port-au-Prince

The grandfather has just caught his big toe in a rat trap, and to be blunt, he's spitting feathers. His wife won't let him into the kitchen until he calms down and stops swearing. His son-in-law, Akim, who originally set the trap and is therefore facing the brunt of the old man's rage, is duly trying to calm him down by explaining the importance of preventing vermin from spreading disease.

Fifteen minutes of knockabout banter later, this extended family has kissed, made up, and agreed that if only people weren't so inconsiderate as to leave enormous piles of litter lying around, then the refugee camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince – where they have been living since their home was destroyed just more than six months ago – would contain far fewer rats, and might therefore be an immeasurably better place.

It's just another crazy day on the set of Under the Sky, Haiti's newest comedy soap opera, which focuses on the daily lives of a family of ordinary, middle-class folk who, like 1.5 million of their countrymen, have lived in tents since January's earthquake, which killed 300,000 people and turned much of their capital to rubble.

A new episode of the agreeably light-spirited show is written and filmed each week in a studio consisting of a couple of makeshift dwellings on the edge of a refugee camp in the city's Tabarre neighbourhood. This is where the director Jacques Roc – Haiti's best-known film-maker – likes to spend the night if filming runs over schedule, because, he says: "I need to know how people are really living."

Unlike the creators of, say, Albert Square, who are devoted to the pursuit of TV ratings, Mr Roc designs his show to educate, rather than simply to entertain. The United Nations provides $6,000 (£3,900) for each episode. Rather like The Archers, first conceived as a way of getting important information to British farmers in the years after the Second World War, it was created as a not-so-subtle medium for communicating officially sanctioned information to victims of the disaster.

In one recent plot twist, the family at the centre of the soap watched a dodgy neighbour hatch a scheme to buy and sell forged camp ID cards, which give their owners a right to free food, clothing and other handouts. He was eventually caught, and banned from receiving any charitable handouts whatsoever.

In another storyline, a distressed girl arrived at the family's shelter in tears, revealing she had been raped. After being comforted by her grandmother, played by the actress Elizabeth Alphonse, she identifies the culprit, who is arrested. The moral: women should report sexual abuse.

"Haitians are the sort of people who. if you go on the radio and tell them 'don't do this, don't do that', they just won't listen," says Mr Roc. "But if they watch a family going through certain situations, you can drop important information into the story without trying to feed it to them like they're in a school class. It can be very effective."

Other plots have demonstrated how refugees can assess if it is safe to return to their damaged homes, and have talked about refugee-camp etiquette. If someone lives in a dwelling that does not have a door, the family decide they should nonetheless announce their impending arrival, by politely shouting: "Knock, knock!"

The UN hopes that, in addition to communicating important, and possibly life-saving, information, Under the Sky will help Haitians to combat one of the most under-reported and dangerous problems of everyday life in a refugee camp: boredom. With almost no employment, most inhabitants of the tent cities have little to do except sit around in the blazing heat. And aid workers are often prone to observing that the Devil makes work for idle hands to do.

Those refugees who have some money to their name have rigged-up small television sets in their dwellings. But now the World Cup has finished, there is little on the airwaves to interest them except re-runs of badly dubbed American soap operas.

Under the Sky airs on national television most weekday evenings, although broadcasters are frequently forced to air old episodes of the show, which will eventually run to 16 instalments, since heavy rainstorms have interfered with Mr Roc and his 24-strong crew's filming schedule. "When it rains, the camp just turns to mud. It is impossible to even walk outside, let alone make a TV show," he says.

For Haitians who cannot afford their own television, the soap opera is also being shown after dark on one of a dozen big mobile projector screens, which the UN transports from camp to camp, depending on the day of the week. Screenings can draw crowds of 10,000, Mr Roc says.

The show's stars – who include two of Haiti's best-known male actors, Lionel Benjamin and Junior Metellus – portray characters who come from a solidly middle-class background. They dress relatively smartly, and the dwellings in which they have been forced to take up residence contain books, table cloths, and other bourgeois accoutrements.

"We thought it was important for them to be that way," says Mr Roc, an excitable character who is himself from Haiti's upwardly mobile class: after studying in New York in the 1980s, he built a successful career in the US, where he made more than 240 television adverts.

"There is a perception that only the poor are in the camps," he adds. "That just isn't true. The earthquake was a very democratic disaster: it cuts across all classes, and a lot of middle-class people lost homes as well. In the camps you see people who get up in the morning, put on a suit and drive a car to work. If we had picked a poor family it would have been totally condescending. It would have suggested that the only people living in tents in this country are poor people; people without an education. To me, nothing would have been more inappropriate."

Mr Roc takes instruction from David Wimshurst, the UN's communications chief in Haiti, as to the serious themes his show must cover. In one episode, the family nod sagely when a newsreader on the radio declares that their government and UN are collaborating to "rebuild" the country. Future instalments will look at issues including the prevention of Aids, how to avoid mosquito bites, domestic violence and sanitation.

But Mr Roc is adamant that there will always be a place for pratfalls and slapstick and old men getting their feet caught in rat traps. "Haitian people, they love comedy," he says. "Even with conditions as they are, people still need to have a laugh, so I try to help them with that. You can say that I am a propagandist, but I try to be one in the nicest possible way."

Suggested Topics
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup