Judge Adam Arseneau lived in a slum, until his wife forced him to clean the house.
The most dangerous place on earth.
You know where you should never ever go? The slums of Haiti, that's where. You will agree with me after watching this film. A sprawling pile of decay, poverty and violence giving way to a love triangle in the midst of revolution, Ghosts of Cité Soleil walks a narrow, drunken line between docudrama and exploitation.
Facts of the Case
Cité Soleil, a slum district in Port-au-Prince, Haiti has long been considered one of the direst and most impoverished ghettos in the world. With little in the way of electricity, sewers, employment or police presence, it is a frighteningly dangerous place to be, full of crime, corruption, unsanitary conditions and violence. It is also home to the Chimères (translated: ghosts), a rag-tag militia force of young men armed with guns, clandestinely hired out by the Haitian government to enforce the rule of law and quell uprisings. The youth consider it a badge of pride to be part of the group, tearing its way through the Haitian landscape supporting their government with violence. With no other prospects in life, toting a gun and dying young is the only option available for them to escape the hardship of the slum.
2pac and Bily are two young brothers that have made a name for themselves in Cité Soleil as fierce warlords. They drink, smoke, listen to gangster rap music and flaunt their automatic weaponry openly, ready to shoot anyone who crosses their path, living the proverbial life of gangsters, ready to die young and proud. Unfortunately for 2pac, after getting into a dispute with the government over money, he finds his fortunes drastically changed after spending two years in prison. Punished by the man he once served loyally, he finds himself questioning his role in supporting the government.
Returning to the slums bitter and hurt, he discovers that Bily has taken control of the city as a Chimères warlord, still proud to serve his president. 2pac decides to put his talent into music and begins to rap, hoping his political lyrics will effect change. The tension between brothers, now on opposite sides of a volatile political equation only deepens with the arrival of a French foreign aid worker who both brothers have feelings for, and a rapidly growing coup movement attempting to remove the government from power. Port-au-Prince soon erupts into terrible violence…
Housing the unpopulated realm between social documentary, MTV-style gangster rap music video and political propaganda, Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a frustrating film to classify. Nothing about the film seems real in the strictest sense, almost as if the filmmaker got a few kids from the slums of Haiti to play gangster parts and wrote a script to that effect, like City Of God did with the favelas of Brazil. In actuality, the film is frighteningly real: 2pac and Bily are honest-to-goodness gangsters, and through connections the filmmaker had with the charity worker featured in the film (also a real person) received permission from the crew to come into their world with a camera. Tenuous at first, but soon enthusiastic for the attention, the cameras followed the men over many months, a rare glimpse into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, where foreigners and cameras rarely tread. Truth is so much more garish than fiction could ever be.
Cité Soleil is the closest thing to hell one will find on earth. Extreme poverty, rampant violence and abysmal living conditions wrapped up around a Snoop Dogg music video, the images captured on screen are almost too surreal to be believable. The young gangs are little more than kids with guns, indirectly (or directly) influenced by political powers to enforce their rule of law on the streets, enjoying every horrifying moment of it. Most will be dead before they reach their twenties, and fully embrace their limited time on the planet by living in the extreme, taking what they want with little thought of consequence. With no police to patrol the slums, the sheer violence and deplorable living conditions boggle the mind.
For a film to come out and illustrate the direct connection between Aristide's government and the unsolicited, illegal gang activity in Haiti is both obvious and daring. Aristide was elected with over 90% of the popular vote, but the election results are highly contested and ripe with fraudulent accusations. Public opinion in Haiti for the now-deposed ruler is strong, but one cannot discount fear of reprisal as a powerful motivator. Haiti is a complicated place. As a matter of crash-course education, Ghosts of Cité Soleil makes a nice companion piece to another Haitian documentary, Jonathan Demme's The Agronomist (which is a much better film). One certainly gets a sense of what life is like for people living in these mega-slums, and it is not a pretty sight. It makes third-world poverty look like a trip to Sun City.
Where Ghosts of Cité Soleil gets itself into trouble is in the execution of its narrative. The first half of the film is spent driving around with the gang, watching them flaunt automatic weaponry, brag about their gangsterish ways and rap loudly in French. Suddenly, Haiti is crumbing in the grip of a coup. The solution: rap some more. The transition between a film about the tragic gang youth of Haiti and politics is both jarring and erratic, but then again, this is Haiti. This is probably an accurate reflection of the Haitian living experience. For all of its two hundred years of independence, the country seems to have spent at least a hundred of those years completely on fire. Nevertheless, it is frustrating to be saddled with a mediocre storyline in order to experience the fascinating and shocking images of Cité Soleil. There is so much fascinating and compelling about this place, these people, this way of life that borders on rampant human rights violations, yet the film seems to go out of its way deliberately to subvert this vision of Haiti, focusing more on a tepid three-way love story. A true documentary would never have bothered with the nonsense that Ghosts of Cité Soleil gets wrapped up in. Acting neither as a true documentary nor a drama, the film tries too hard to inhabit both worlds and feels both unsatisfying and compromised in its vision.
The film is presented in a beefy 5.1 Surround track in the film's native hodge-podge of English, French and Haitian Creole, with burned-on (boo) English subtitles. The sound comes through thick and clean in all channels, occasionally mired by environmental distractions, but well defined across all the channels. Bass response is solid, and the score, composed by native Haitian Wyclef Jean (who inexplicably also appears in the film as himself) is an ethereal pounding affair full of great beats and basslines perfectly suiting the subject matter
Shot down and dirty on DV, the film alternates between stylishness and a four-letter word that starts with the letter "s." The cinematography is heavily influenced by MTV-style quick cuts, gloriously oversatured with a washed-out color palate and heavy grain. Nevertheless, it works for the film, matching the surreal subject matter. Black levels alternate between grainy messes of swirling snow and deep charcoal with little distinction. Most night sequences are shot in night vision mode, which makes everyone look like a zombie anyway.
Extras are non-existent; only a theatrical trailer. Some added background info about the political backdrop to which this film was set, or a small documentary would have gone a long way.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The politics of this film are unsettling in their ambiguity. With politics being an integral part of Haitian identity and hardships, Ghosts of Cité Soleil seems to pick and choose its moments of political commentary at will, or when it suits its own devices. At one point, the film seems vehemently pro-Aristide, while in others seems critical of his regime. Perhaps worse, most of the time the film says nothing of any worth whatsoever about the chaos and disorder, its narrative skipping disjointedly around the political backdrop like a scratched record. Having watched the film twice, I still have no idea where the filmmakers stood on the subject. But then again, I don't think anyone in Haiti did at the time either.
A confusing but undeniably powerful piece of documentary filmmaking, Ghosts of Cité Soleil offers an imperfect but powerful glimpse into one of the most dangerous places in the civilized world. The film might be a bit too music video in its styling, but one cannot argue the profoundness of the images captured here.
Worth a rental, this court awards the director points for ambition for taking a camera into a Haitian slum and coming away with a movie.
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