Review: Ghosts of Cite Soleil
With humanitarian disaster drawing all eyes to Haiti at the moment, there’s a higher than not chance people will be drawn to seeking out films or documentaries dealing with the country’s past and present. Off hand, not many spring to mind, but among those that do exist, Ghosts of Cite Soliel is Asger Leth’s attempt to look at life in the slum that gives the film its title.
It’s an interesting flick, following the typical cinematic device of two rival brothers, with the twists and turns that set them against each other thanks to circumstance. Both of the brothers are leaders of two armed gangs known as the chimere, operating in no go areas in Port au Prince. From here, the documentary picks up on a series of marketing cues developed by a whole slew of films that sought to capitalise on the success of City of God and hammers these home on every level possible.
Packaged to sit alongside such favella fiction pieces, the substance of the situation gets driven to the ground, and the documentary descends into a music video gangster cliché albeit one against the backdrop of president Aristide’s flight from power in 2004. There are huge cracks prevalent in the presentation of the lives of those featured that allow several more curious questions around the nature of the film and its agenda to peer through.
Anyone with even a smattering of reading outside the mainstream media on Haiti will feel rather uncomfortable watching the film. Something is just not right. This unease is not due to any scenes of graphic violence or poverty, but arises more by the absence of any context or voices that give a broader arc to the piece.
With such intimate access to the subject matter, it is possible to forgive the director for allowing that broader political narrative to get buried in the micro focus, on pouring over the immediate lives of those portrayed. But that’s not the case at all. The film makers very selectively present an over all interpretation of events, they do so with seams of information derived from the opposition to Aristide, they feature interviews with leaders of the coup at a local level right up to the UN advisors that backed them.
One of the film’s chief devices is the constant return to one American radio commentator. Specialising in a sort of at arms length reportage style this voice over obscures events rather than sheds light on them. I didn’t sit through the credits long enough to figure out who this voice was, but it sits as the main authoritative voice on the situation in Haiti at the time and it’s one that’s deeply uncritical of events.
These truly are the only voices in the film outside the chimere. While the film was shot in some danger, and looks great, it very much remains a strange exotic gaze into life in one of the countrys largest slums. And what’s interesting about it is how much of the political agenda of film carries over unquestioned in reviews. Aristide bad. Opposition good. Chimere scum.
The events at hand don’t go unquestioned by those at the heart of the film. Undoubtedly the chimere acted as thugs for Aristide, they admit as much on screen and laud themselves as close to the “big boss,” boastfully driving around with official vehicle passes and loud declarations to passers of “its my town baby.” But there’s another side too, the chimere leaders voice some of the concerns of their communities.
The most socially conciosu of them, Billy, declares the need to attack “the extravagant system in Cite Soliel” and how “it’s always people from of Cite Soleil who are the victims.” He describes how Aristide was the only one to voice their concerns, and it’s really hard to discern how much the film conflats his support for Aristide’s Lavalas movement with criminality. But these fragments of voices from below really seem to have just been left in through accident rather as genuine attempts to get at a whole story.
The five chimere gangs are seen negotiating a peace with the new regime, and we are led to believe they represent something of a grassroots organisation in the slum. Again, this has to be through absence and the directors choice to silence other organisations that do exist in Haiti and were behind much of the opposition to the coup in recent years. Every one apart from the gangsters and coup makers are displayed as powerless natives chasing food trucks. Everyone, that is, apart from Lele, a French female who we are only allowed assume is an aid worker who comes in as a love interest and peace maker between the warring brothers .
Interestingly, Billy declares how the opposition to Aristide “take me for a gangster, not someone who can want development” or have concern for his community. It’s exactly the same approach taken by the film makers – we never really see the extent of their criminal activities, if any and that applies to their music too. Apart from some allusions to wanting to be hop hop stars and doing recordings, we never get a sense of what sort of music scene if any they are involved in.
Wyclef Jean pops up for a phone call at some stage, and his music dominates the emotional tone of the film – but where any of that fits in with the lives of the two brothers I don’t know, other than maybe giving them a glimmer of hope of recording in the States or meeting an idol. There’s a terrible scene with Wyclef running messianic like through Port Au Prince at some stage too reprising a role previously played by Bob Marley as ghetto saviour.
Other than that, between the mish mash of hip hop, political violence, gangsterism and a completely unambiguous taking sides but playing at “hands off” political analysis and observational documentary making, Ghosts of Cite de Soleil stands as strange creature that just might play a terribly unfortunate role in weathering opinion on recent history in Haiti far too close to simplistic.
Both of the brothers were dead by the time the film was released. It’d be interesting to see their reaction to how their lives were portrayed by the film makers. Of course, that’s something we’ll never know. A good thing for Asger Leth but bad for the rest of us.
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