By her own definition, artist Victoria Campbell’s life path has been “a long, crooked road,” with interludes in theatre, filmmaking and performance art. Her restless creative peregrination has taken her through Europe, New York and Los Angeles. In an unforeseen twist, Ms. Campbell’s journey took a detour into the ruined slums of Haiti in the wake of the January quake. On Wednesday, July 14, art and humanitarianism will come together as she screens her acclaimed documentary House of Bones at a fundraiser for the Haitian neighborhood of Christroi.
Ms. Campbell was born on Martha’s Vineyard in 1975. At age 16 she spent a year in Orange, France with a farming family that spoke no English. The immersion experience sparked a lifelong fascination with foreign languages. In 1993 she learned Arabic while living with a Jordanian family during the run up to the Oslo peace accords. While studying drama and foreign languages at Bard College in the mid-nineties she visited Italy and the Czech Republic. After college she spent six years in New York city acting in off-Broadway productions and studying with acting teachers Robert X. Modica (a fiery ex-Marine who frequently invited extras from The Sopranos to sit in on classes), Naomi Thornton (founder of the acclaimed Theater Company of Boston) and legendary Broadway director Gene Frankel. Next came a stretch in Hollywood where she performed with the Circus Theatricals troupe and appeared in bit parts in film and television. She returned periodically to the Vineyard to act in low-budget, independent films by Taylor Toole and David Kann. Several years ago she launched The Hunt For Good Americans, a satiric Web series starring Ms. Campbell and photographer Abigail Pope.
Ms. Campbell was living in New York when the quake hit in January. She felt compelled to help as she learned of the massive scope of the devastation, yet her initial calls to aid organizations were rebuffed. She was on the verge of giving up when her father, Bruce Campbell, bellowed, “Get down there, you speak French, just do it!”
Her father’s exhortation compelled her to keep looking, and several days later a distant personal connection put her in touch with Artists for Peace and Justice, an organization seeking hospital volunteers in the Christroi neighborhood outside Port au Prince. In short order, Ms. Campbell and Ms. Pope were in the Dominican Republic, journeying into Haiti on a bus crowded with French journalists and Haitians.
Upon their midnight arrival they discovered mountains of rubble, smoking fire pits, lines of people sleeping under blankets on the sidewalk, and street preachers waving bibles and shouting scripture.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she says. “It truly was the craziest feeling.”
The two settled on the hospital rooftop at 2 a.m. and were up at 6 a.m. as aftershocks began rattling the buildings. Hordes of terrified Haitians streamed out of the hospital onto the streets, afraid that another quake was upon them. Ms. Campbell’s French skills were put to immediate use as she told the crowds, “Calmez-vous! Calmez-vous!” and ushered them back inside the building.
Ms. Campbell and Ms. Pope were instructed by an Argentinian nurse in the rudiments of first aid and were soon cleaning and dressing wounds. Many of the wounds had become gangrenous from a lack of medical attention.
“Limbs were literally coming apart in front of us,” she recalls. “We dealt with every human smell and part of the body.”
Despite the shock of being on the frontlines of a humanitarian catastrophe, Ms. Campbell experienced clarity amidst the chaos.
“You get a stiff upper lip, you think, ‘I’m healthy, I can give so much to this person, I can give them comfort.’ Even though it’s terrifying to see someone’s limb come apart in your hands, you know they’re the ones in pain.”
She witnessed phenomenal resilience among the patients, many of whom had limbs amputated without anesthesia. Rather than responding with depression and anger, most patients approached amputation with gratitude, as it meant they would recover when so many around them had died.
Following eight days in Haiti, Ms. Campbell returned to the United States and set about finding ways to help the residents of Christroi.
“After the trip I felt deeply connected,” she says. “I’d fallen in love with the Haitian spirit. There’s such beauty in the people, in the spirit and joy and resilience. Haitians know how crazy and chaotic their country is, and how the only saving grace is to have a sense of humor.”
After hosting a small fundraiser and soliciting funds from family and friends, Ms. Campbell returned to Haiti in May with $1,500. Despite reports of the vast sums of money and aid pouring into Haiti, she was shocked to see the lack of progress in Christroi. While the streets were clear of rubble and most bodies had been removed, many of the buildings were still in shambles, with no tractors or heavy equipment available to remove the debris. Bodies still lingered beneath collapsed homes, with the pungent stench of death lingering in the air.
“When I was there a body had just been recovered and burned on a mattress,” she says. “That kind of chaos occurs on a daily basis.”
She met with Gaston, the nimble, fedora-wearing mayor of Christroi, who was collaborating with Italian journalist Claudio Gatti to found Solidarite Hatienne, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to reviving Christroi. Through Solidarite Hatienne Ms. Campbell was able to deliver the funds directly into the hands of nurses and builders in the neighborhood. In a region notorious for pilfering foreign aid, she witnessed seamless accountability.
“I saw exactly where the money went,” she says. “I helped buy medical supplies, I checked the inventory, they mark exactly what money comes in and deduct it to the penny from this list. There was no pocketing.”
In addition to serving immediate material needs, Ms. Campbell witnessed how the aid helped provide focus and purpose to the men in the neighborhood who were idled by the quake.
“People talk about aid and money, but we’re not talking about the people who have nothing to do,” she says. “You can give them water and food for so long, but you have to give them a purpose, to feel there is some order. A beautiful thing I saw was that these men, many who had lost their children and wives in the quake, were distributing water or getting supplies for the clinic. A little bit of money goes a long way to help this little neighborhood get back on its feet.”
In the future, Ms. Campbell hopes to see Martha’s Vineyard develop a sister-city relationship with Christroi. She’s spoken with several local construction workers about visiting Haiti to help rebuild the neighborhood.
“I feel this Haitian community is so much like the Vineyard,” she says. “It’s a neighborhood full of artists, musicians, construction workers and wood-workers. You have a group of people who are no different, people filled with talent who are trying to survive.”
At the fundraiser, Ms. Campbell will present her documentary House of Bones. The film, shot between 2006 and 2008, is an intimate portrait of a family coping with generational change as the matriarch passes away and her West Chop summer residence, the family gathering place for generations, is sold. By the film’s conclusion, the house is literally stripped to its bones during an extensive renovation, erasing all traces of its previous incarnation.
After the screening, Ms. Campbell will also share raw footage from Haiti. She hints that her next film project will likely be a documentary of Haiti; she already has amassed six hours of material, including a voodoo ceremony she was permitted to record.
“It was a sign of trust they let me film,” she says. “I was in a very small room with the older priests. Gaston, who is a voodoo priest as well as mayor, put a spell on me because I’m bad with money. He poured peppermint oil on my hands and rubbed Haitian money on them. So far, I’ve been doing a little better,” she laughs.
Ms. Campbell’s next trip to Haiti is scheduled for August 17. “I’m not saving Haiti,” she says. “That’s impossible. That’s something USAID has to do. This is small but direct. This neighborhood has 2,500 people, where everyone’s in tent camps. It will help get this place back on its feet and function again. I want people to have purpose, where they have a community again.”
Ms. Campbell’s inspiration to persevere on behalf of the Haitian people is inspired by the warmth, gentleness and acceptance she felt while living and working among them. The experience has also injected a measure of hardheaded pragmatism into her life, as she’s worked shoulder-to-shoulder with doctors and nurses amidst harrowing trauma and taken an active role in rehabilitating the community. Yet her artistic temperament still guides her life path. The moments of grace and humor she has experienced among the Haitian people have reaffirmed her belief in the preciousness of life and importance of living it on your own terms.
“I’ve never been more sure of following my passions in life regardless of what people around me say or my financial condition,” she says. “Life is too short. I’ve seen it be so short; I’m a lot more fearless. I refuse to live in half measures, without fully loving 100 per cent and doing what I love and feel passionate about. That’s what I’ve learned from this experience more than anything.”
House of Bones will show at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Wednesday, July 14 at 8:30 p.m.