GHOSTS OF CITÉ SOLEIL

NR
Reviews

Fatalism hangs over the documentary Ghosts of Cité Soleil like blunts from the lips of chimeres, the "ghosts" who haunt the series of Port-au-Prince, Haiti slums known collectively as Cité Soleil. That it was sick-puppy dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier who conceived this Sun City as a tourist attraction is just one of the abounding ironies in this first feature by Danish filmmaker Asger Leth, son of celebrated director Jorgen Leth and film editor Ann Berlich.

Many of the rest have to do with the way rap and hip-hop braggadocio has become the language of power among the quasi-political gang leaders who control the streets. Armed with automatic weapons and given cars and just enough money to dispense ward-heeler favors among the desperately poor, these chimere chiefs live little better than the other teeming slum-dwellers. Spewing trash talk that makes David Mamet look like Mother Goose, peppered with preening, threats and an inordinate use of the words "gangster," "criminal" and "thug," the chiefs we see aren't particularly out for themselves. Stranded in a preternatural poverty of mud, disease, violence, little drinking water or electricity, and an overwhelming disregard by the monied powers-that-be, they claim to want two things: political peace and a rap career. If it weren't so horrific, it'd be absurdly funny.

That same might be said of Leth's approach, which is impressively all-access--a relief worker/lover of one of the chiefs having provided introductions and passage through the historic events of February 2004--but squanders that extremely rare view of the heart of the beast. With a willfully blind eye to a fuller context, Leth fashions a sentimental story of, in his own press-material words, a "practically Shakespearean" tale of two brothers "both in love with the same girl!" Exclamation point his.

Those two brothers are Winston "2pac" Jean Bart and James "Bily" Petit-Frere--not that Leth gives you those full names, offering instead only their tags, as if conferring outlaw medals. Each leads a chimere gang; the film mentions five such gangs, with news reports counting as many as 32 at the time. The woman is a piece of work named Éleonore "Lele" Senlis, whom the film, suspiciously, IDs only as an unspecified "French relief worker." Spies often use "relief work" as a cover, and aside from an artist with five kids, the only online reference to a relief worker named Éleonore Senlis appears to be an advisory-board member of a UNICEF-related HIV/AIDS project. That the film shows her spending far less time bandaging and comforting than she does playing Mata Hari--dispensing political advice to each brother and sleeping with one--brings up obvious questions about exactly what kind "relief" she's there to provide.

There are a lot of questions the film doesn't ask as it skims over the unrest that culminated in a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by "Cannibal Army" rebels Guy Philippe, Louis-Jodel Chamlain (a former death-squad leader) and Butteur Matayer (head of the Revolutionary Anti-Aristide Front). The brothers whom the mysterious Senlis introduced the filmmakers to say their resources came from Aristide; some commentators have since claimed the brothers were paid to say so. The film does has an anti-Aristide slant--and there are, in fairness, debates to this day about his election, his sudden departure from the country, and more--but what truly ruins the documentary's credibility besides its vagueness about Semlis is Leth not mentioning, just for instance, that opposition candidates André "Andy" Apaid and Charles Henri Baker are what human-rights organizations call sweatshop owners, and that both objected to Aristide wanting to double the minimum wage. Given the incomparable poverty of Haiti, that's kind of a significant thing to omit, don't you think?

I could give many more examples. You have to admire Leth and his team's intrepidness in gaining unprecedented access and staying alive. But this privileged-class filmmaker is so enamored of his romantically outlaw subjects and the woman in-between, his film is just one step removed from "The Real World: Haiti."