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Ghosts of Cité Soleil
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by Jay Seaver

"Welcome to the most dangerous place on Earth."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: According to the information presented at the start of this film, the Cité Soleil section of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, is considered the most dangerous place in the world by the United Nations. The poorest section of the poorest country on Earth, it is almost completely run by gangs, some of whom the film alleges worked as enforcers for President Aristide - the "chimeres", ghost soldiers.

At least, that's what they tell us. Ghosts of Cité Soleil, which follows two of the city's five major gang chiefs, doesn't present a lot of evidence linking them to Aristide's Lavalas party beyond their own assertions. In some ways, it's somewhat irrelevant; though there are frequent cut-aways to the events in Haiti at large during early 2004, this is a story about the contentious relationship between brothers, with how they effect the world around them a sidenote.

The pair are Wilson "2pac" Jean and James "Bily" Petit Frère. Bily is a more vociferous Lavalas loyalist who according to his brother, seeing himself as a future President of Haiti. 2pac doesn't see any point in thinking that big; he's too practical. While he'll tell the camera that the government provided him with a car and guns, his music expresses more doubt. He also expresses disdain for how his brother runs his gang "like a police station". For all that, 2pac is the one who seems to have the greater charisma and stability - it's Bily who rails about being shown "respect", and who calls a UN relief worker in after he shoots one of his underlings in the foot to make a point.

That relief worker, "Lele" Senlis, winds up as the film's third major character. She tells us that she hadn't expected to have to befriend gangsters when she first took the job, but the fact that she does and that Bily is able to clear a safe path for her car underscores the point that the gangs operate as a separate infrastructure within the city. She does in fact get quite closely involved, drinking with them, writing in her journal about how she believes Bily has nobler goals than 2pac, but eventually sharing 2pac's bed.

There's a message to be found in that scene, aside from it being good theater: Surviving in a place like Haiti means getting very close to some dangerous people. Directors Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic appear to do a good job of simply documenting rather than judging their characters, simply presenting their lives and letting the audience decide for themselves whether these are evil people or folks doing what must be done to survive in desperate conditions. They put us right in the middle of these street gangs, and the audience can understand how Lele gets sucked in, because it's hard enough for us at our remove to look away. The access Leth & Loncarevic have is impressive, although at the same time a little frightening - it means that 2pac, Bily, and the rest don't care about having their criminal lives documented because it's not as though there is any justice to be had in Haiti.

Still, one shouldn't ignore the fact that what a documentarian opts not to include is just as important as what they put in, and that the presence of a camera changes things. Wyclef Jean not only composes the music but serves as an executive producer and appears in the film, taking a telephone call from 2pac. The conversation between a thug in Port-au-Prince and a successful musician in New York feels very odd without context, and I wasn't sure what to take away from the moment: Is 2pac a prominent enough figure in the Haitian music scene that Jean would have an interest and contact with him, or is this something created by the producers to legitimize the man in our eyes. Jean's involvement itself is problematic, as this most visible Haitian in America has been tied to support of the rebels we see overthrowing Aristide's government (which for all its faults was democratically elected). If objectivity is what a documentary should strive for, this film fails on that count.

It is, however, engrossing material, compelling enough that many in the audience will want to learn more.

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originally posted: 07/13/07 23:45:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 20-Nov-2007



Directed by
  Asger Leth

Written by
  Asger Leth

  Winson Jean
  James Petit Frère
  Éleonore Senlis
  Wyclef Jean

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