Ghosts of Cité Soleil

Revolver Entertainment and THINKFilm
Asger Leth/Denmark-United States 2007

Much is made of Wyclef Jean’s involvement in this documentary, which was shot in Haiti between 2001 and 2003. He is one of six executive producers and makes two short, highly staged appearances in the film. Music is definitely a way out of the ghetto, as Jean’s international stardom will testify. But the wannabe rappers Ghosts of Cité Soleil focus on are part of Haiti’s problem.

In a place the UN calls more dangerous than Baghdad or Grozny, two white men with expensive cameras were able – apparently – to move with impunity. The reason for this is they trained those cameras on two of the “chimères” who at that time ran Cité Soleil. Chimères are gangsters/drug lords who also use their clout for the highest political bidder, breaking up riots, beating up the opposition, etc. Their name translates loosely as “ghosts”, but also implies something that you glimpse from the corner of your eye. In fact, the film is edited in scattershot fashion, as if the directors couldn’t bear to focus on any one shot for too long.

Despite this subconscious undermining of their story, director Asger Leth plants his chimères firmly center screen. Action is mostly repetitive monologues about their power and dreams of rap stardom. Almost no one else speaks. Sure, there are some talking-head interviews with politicians who explain the Haitian political climate, and there’s an American voiceover surely borrowed from contemporary news broadcasts. But the only other person who speaks freely is Lele, a French relief worker whose purpose in Cité Soleil is not clear, as the only relief she seems to provide is of the horizontal type.

Lele’s relationship with the brothers is informative; usually they speak English, clearly for the benefit of the cameras. When talking more frankly, they speak French. It’s only when the chimères, who call themselves 2Pac and Bily, are with their “soldiers” that they speak Creole. In light of this, it’s impossible to say what else in the film is staged. More importantly, we never (not even in the press notes) learn how the filmmakers earned their safe passage throughout Cité Soleil. How much did they collude with these gangsters for this film? What price did they have to pay?

Two moments point to what Ghosts of Cité Soleil might have been if it was not such a propaganda piece. In one, a fight breaks out amongst the soldiers over a gun in the wrong hands. They spill out of their cars, shouting threats and literally tugging a machine gun. Behind them, a man pushing a wheelbarrow stops for breath, watching without expression, before trudging on with his back to them. In the other, a neighborhood power cut threatens to prevent a wake for one of the soldiers. The gang under 2Pac rushes to the house of a man with a generator, who meets their threats with the plea that although he would never do anything against them, unfortunately the generator has been prebooked. In both cases, we’re meant to sympathize about how hard it is keeping a gang of murderous drug dealers in line. The ordinary Joes merely get in the way.

Compare this with Favela Rising, a 2005 documentary about a Brazilian slum trying to better itself through music. At one point, the filmmakers’ translator is visibly horrified as a young man casually explains how the drug lords prevent snitching through terrible physical violence. The translator asks if it’s safe to talk about it. “I’m only explaining,” he reassures, “but if you went up there to film them, it’d be a very serious mistake.”

By glorifying the thugs of Cité Soleil, everyone involved in this film’s creation has made that very serious mistake.

© 2007 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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