A true story of violence and power in Haiti
In 2004, Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and his Lavalas political party were under siege from anti-government rebels. Citizens were protesting in the streets. To help stave off insurgency, Aristide recruited armed gangs, which became known as the Chimères, from Port-au-Prince's Cité Soleil neighborhood, a vast slum the United Nations had called "the most dangerous place on earth."
Into the danger went the Danish director Asger Leth and his documentary crew. Looking for a story, Leth appears to have gotten a pile of good ones. He had amazing access not just to the Chimères but also the top of the rebel movement after it swept into power. But he's made a confusing mess of the findings, looking for humanity in the wrong places. The resulting film, "The Ghosts of Cité Soleil," gives us a full, blasting profile not of the people living among the warlords but of the warlords themselves, two of them, a pair of brothers near the top of the Chimères.
One is Haitian 2pac. The other is Bily. Leth includes quiet moments with Haitian 2pac telling the camera "You gotta have dreams." He seems high and incoherent. When he tells us he thinks the younger Bily could be president, the movie seems headed toward an interesting dichotomy, especially after we meet him. He's more thoughtful and articulate, explaining what drives an impoverished person to lead a thug's life. He says he and the rest of the Chimères leadership represent Cité Soleil's 300,000 or so residents. But they just seem to be two different kinds of dangerous.
For good moral measure, Leth introduces us to a French relief worker, who reads from her diary and works at one of the too few hospitals, making house calls and cleaning up gang messes. She has access to the two brothers and tries to keep them from typical gangland recriminations, but she seems to be fueling a feud between them. Yes, that's her partying it up with 2pac in one scene, in his bed the next, and telling Bily that, alas, she's sleeping with 2pac. So amid the political turmoil, there is also "Jerry Springer" melodrama.
The film is shot and edited in the staccato key of hip-hop video. 2pac and others rap to the camera, they blow clouds of smoke into the camera, they point their guns at the camera. They make bragging threats into the camera ("I'll eat you alive and no one will ever know," 2pac says). On the streets, when he drives by, speakers blaring, rifle in his lap, crowds form outside the car, some straining to get a look at the camera. They're certainly performing for him. The flattery appears to go both ways. The film speaks their language.
I've been arguing for a return to real style in non-fiction filmmaking but that seems put to misguided ends here: This is a movie the two brothers and their minions would be proud of. Eventually, you're forced to wonder what Leth's presence is bringing out of these gangstas. You also wonder if the camera is part of some ironic deal: They keep him safe. He makes them feel like they're starring in their own "City of God."
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movie nation.