In 2004 some of the bravest filmmakers imaginable took on the task of visiting a Port Au Prince, Haiti suburb, called Cité Soleil, to record the lives of two young Haitian men, the Haitian 2Pac and his brother Bily. The two are the leaders of a gang, although the word “gang” is a rather simplistic description of the actual reality of the relationships between them and their friends as seen in documentary film “Ghosts of Cité Soleil.”
Danish director Asger Leth, Serbian co-director and cinematographer Milos Loncarevic and their crew have made as genuinely gritty a film as possible, and one that is utterly revealing. 2Pac is tall and sinewy, and creates rap lyrics that he shares with his friend Wyclef Jean during a filmed phone call segment. He has some loosely conceived ideas as to what would help his people, the impoverished residents of Cité Soleil, but most of his time is spent trying to gain the respect of his peers while convincing them to do his bidding. This need for respect is echoed throughout the mean streets of America’s urban areas as well, and I found the parallels to aspects of our own culture fascinating. It seems some of the worst elements of American culture are shared by other nations and I wonder whether or not it is something that flows down from America to the rest of the world, or is it just historically endemic to human culture that people behave in certain ways depending upon what type of stress is placed upon them.
The filmmakers follow the two, jumping from the immediate life of one to the other, and we see how they live amid absolute poverty and general squalor. They seem to reside in a series of places, and you’re never quite sure where you are within the bunched together dwellings that comprise the various, numbered, districts that make up Cité Soleil. Food seems to be gathered by a combination of hand-outs and purchases from street market vendors, and there is no obvious industry present. People seem to just mill about all day, without much purpose and without any obvious goals in mind, and this mass lack of direction includes 2Pac and Bily. We are told by 2Pac that Aristide, who was President of Haiti during the filming, had enlisted him and his fellow “Chimères,” the armed “gangs” who roam Cité Soleil, to help harass and terrorize people opposed to the president. We are shown no direct evidence that this is true, but these gangs have money and guns and it is coming from somewhere. There are no scenes depicting Bily or 2Pac either working or committing any crimes, so I have to be left with the idea it was true Aristide was funding these gangs in some fashion during his regime.
A French relief worker named Lele figures prominently in the film, as she falls in love with 2Pac and helps him in various ways. There are no scenes featuring her actually providing much in the way of “relief” to anyone, so I’m not sure that her participation was in any way a positive one. I believe that director Leth probably didn’t consider her presence as central to the concept behind his film, but to me she was a major force in the life of 2Pac, one that wasn’t really helping him.
I greatly admire the makers of “Ghosts of Cité Soleil,” but wonder what we don’t see in the film. They put their lives on the line to get this story out to the world, but in the end I felt that showing us first hand and unflinchingly what is going on in this Hatian ghetto might create a feeling among some that is unintended. I, myself, have to question the fact that 2Pac, Bily, and the other young men of Cité Soleil don’t seem to be making any sort of positive difference in the lives of their constituents. They aren’t helping to actualize the dreams they have for their people or themselves. Rather than feeling sympathy I feel anger and frustration over the fact that these people aren’t doing more to help themselves. Waiting around for some external agent such as a government to help you gets you nothing. One has to reach for what one wants, and one has to be willing to put forth the effort needed to realize a goal. I don’t see that happening if the situation now, in 2007, is no different than it was in 2004. At some point the people themselves have to take direct control over their own lives if they expect anything to change for them.
There is no question that “Ghosts of Cité Soleil” is an important film, and I urge people to see it when they can. It is hard to watch at times, and it is absolutely honest, but it is utterly revealing of the truth that is the lives of the people in Cité Soleil, and the people of Haiti in general. The best way we can help these people is to give them the same attention we give to other parts of the world. What we can do for them, specifically, is the subject of many discussions, but we really do need to start taking care of business closer to our own American shores. Haiti needs our attention, and it needs it fast. If we neglect the people there, eventually we will regret that we didn’t pay more attention to them while we had the chance.
Ghosts of Cité Soleil opens in New York City on June 27th, and in Los Angeles on July 13th.
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