Dir.Asger Leth. Denmark/US. 2006. 88min.
Although it will prove a maddeningexperience for anyone seeking a traditional documentary approach to the enduring and vexing humanitarian crisis thatis Haiti, Ghosts Of Cite Soleil is anincredibly visceral journey into the meaning of the phrase "life is cheap". Avital melding of hip hop sensibility and existential urgency, it's aone-of-a-kind instance of a film crew being in the wrong place at the wrongtime, a terrifying verite portrait of two brothers, both of them gang leadersin the slums of Port Au Prince. It's not just a matter of life and death but ofsex and drugs and rap. Theatrical prospects will hinge on the latter threeelements, particularly the last given the strong musical (and brief screen) presenceof hip hop star Wyclef Jean.
The Caribbean nation, one of the world'spoorest, clearly a holds a strong attraction for Danish filmmaker Asger Leth,and indeed his family. His father, veteran film-maker Jorgen Leth (co-directorwith Lars von Trier of The FiveObstructions) directed an earlier documentary about the country, 1996's Haiti. Untitled. Clearly influenced byhis father's work (he too had a hand in Obstructions),Asger Leth and his crew established connections in Haiti's gang culture thatgive the film a breath-taking intimacy, not just for the frank nature of thediscussions - some of it treasonous - but for its sheer danger. Guns areeverywhere in Cite Soleil and they often go off.
Winson Jean (aka 2pac) and James PetitFrere (aka Bily) are hardcore punks in the literal sense; 20-something brothersorphaned as children, they have known nothing but the brutality of life in oneof the most dangerous parts of the world's most dangerous cities. When the filmwas shot (in early 2004), they were factional leaders in the Chimeres, aseemingly ad hoc and diffuse network of gangs who supported the government ofJean-Bertrand Aristide during the later years of his presidency, and who werehung out to dry when Aristide fled the country on February 29, 2004.
Young and beyond reckless, oozing sexualpotency and reeking of ganja, the brothers are both highly engaging individualsrendered epic by their shared sense of doom and their shared love for the samewoman, a French relief worker named Lele.
Shot by Serbian Milos Loncarevic as well asLeth and Frederik Jacobi, the film whirls in a fervour as the music pounds andpulses (Wyclef Jean blended some of 2pac's music into his own contributions).From the chaos of the streets as the Aristide regime crumbles, the camera zipsand dips into the bedroom, the shower, the music and the tormented andconflicted minds of its two protagonists. Neither has any faith in Aristide asa leader but to change allegiance would be a death sentence. As it turned outto be.
As a documentary, the film is less thanrigourous. It's kinetic style comes at the sacrifice of context. Withoutbenefit of the press notes, the audience may well wonder who is who and what iswhat. But this may ultimately describe the street-level view in so failed asociety; even if you trust no one but your nearest and dearest, you may stillget burned.
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