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A FilmExposed Film Review

Ghosts of Cité Soleil (15)

Ghosts of Cité Soleil (15)

Dirs: Asger Leth, Milos Loncarevic, 2006, Denmark/USA, 88mins, Creole & French with subtitles
Featuring: Winson '2Pac' Jean, Wyclef Jean, James 'Bily' Petit Frère, Éleonore 'Lele' Senlis

As the son of Lars von Trier’s mentor, the director Jorgen Leth, and of film-editor Ann Bierlich, you could say Asger Leth comes from good stock. Experienced in film, television, and commercials, he undertook his feature-length directorial debut in the summer of 2004 by swapping the relative safety and affluence of his native Denmark for the political turbulence of Haiti. He and his Serbian co-director, Loncarevic, embarked upon the dangerous task of filming a documentary about gangs ‘employed’ by then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to control parts of the Cité Soleil slum in the capital, Port-au-Prince. The film-makers gained unparalleled access to the leaders of two rival – yet collaborative – Chimères gangs, Bily and Haitian 2pac, who also happened to be brothers.

For such a potentially perilous excursion into the heart of a city where the embattled police must confront ‘politically sanctioned’ gangs, the film-makers’ level of access to Bily and 2pac results in an extraordinarily ambitious work. Ghosts of Cité Soleil succeeds in revealing at the closest of quarters the harsh and violent realities of present-day Haiti (or certainly in 2004 in the run-up to the enforced exile of the corrupt, but democratically elected, Aristide).

However, where it’s deficient is in providing any semblance of historical context to the country’s present-day situation. Only a cursory chronology is offered at the beginning of the documentary, concluding with the fact that, in 1804, Haiti became the world’s first Black republic – there is no attempt to account for the horrors that have engulfed Haitian society in the intervening years; no mention, for example, is made of the island’s history of oppressive dictatorships.

Moreover, while it’s impossible to glamourise the gun-toting lifestyle of wannabe gangstas Bily and 2pac, Ghosts of Cité Soleil nevertheless plumps for a superficial infatuation with their status-conscious machismo. And it also has a perverse relationship with Lele, a French aid worker, (or, rather, it captures Lele’s perversity), who compromises her responsibilities by beginning a relationship with Bily, before ‘exchanging’ him for a rival gang member! Overall, the film is too enamoured of its incredible ‘characters’ to deliver any illuminating insight into their situational plight, its lack of any emotional detachment precluding the objectivity required for a topical documentary.

This trivialisation of the film’s subject is pervasive: for example, the potentially bloody climax of an altercation between two gang members bravely filmed at street-level is unaccountably interrupted by an (apparently) unrelated airborne shot of a street gun battle. The intense footage of the dispute is thus wasted by what feels like an approach more in thrall to the MTV zeitgeist of style (‘aesthetics’) over substance (ideological conviction) than to the sober responsibilities of the documentarian. Given that the degree of access afforded the film-makers by Bily and 2pac is quite possibly unique, Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a squandered opportunity. Then again, there’s nothing like a re-edit to refocus a misconceived vision.


Matthew Supersad

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