Great storytelling sometimes reveals itself by what it leaves out, and so it is that our latest Notable Narratives shine by not focusing on post-earthquake death and devastation in Haiti. Last month, PBS’ Frontline sent video producer Travis Fox to the Carribean to meet up with NPR’s Adam Davidson, who was there reporting for Planet Money. The economics stories they came back with are deceptively charming and reveal a lot about current life on the island.
These two short videos (both of which clock in at under six minutes) deliver a series of small epiphanies for viewers. In “The Economy of a Tent City,” Fox opens with people singing at a church service and offers a glimpse of a woman’s painted toenails and sandaled feet stepping on packed dirt. Later, we see just one of the small tent-based businesses in the Port-au-Prince camp that offers pedicures. In addition to beauty parlors, there are cell phone recharging stations and improvised movie theaters—all signs of a hardscrabble effort to make do.
In “Solving the Tap-Tap Puzzle,” Davidson tries to figure out why the owner-operated buses of the Haitian capital sport elaborate painted shells that cost several hundred dollars or more. Despite the post-diasaster challenges faced by an already poor nation, he says, “It’s like the Haitian subconscious exploded on the side of every bus.” (We won’t spoil what emerges as an explanation.)
Without any discussion of the dead or injured, Fox recalls the Haitian people’s dislocation via the rubble visible in the background along the bus route. And Davidson reminds us why that tent city economy matters—it’s likely people will be living in these makeshift homes for years to come. They don’t focus on the tragedy, but we understand its role in their stories. It’s a kind of understatement that lets these slight pieces pack a punch.
While Frontline offered a full-length treatment of the earthquake, and Planet Money did other in-depth reporting from Haiti, we found these two videos to be surprising, compelling storytelling. What’s more, with the same stories available as videos, audio and text (short pieces accompany the NPR audio narratives online), we can get a primer in how to approach the same story in different media.
[Read our interviews with Fox and Davidson on cross-platform storytelling and their work together. And see Nieman Lab’s interview with Executive Producer David Fanning about Frontline‘s decision to collaborate with NPR and the NewsHour on the stories.]