Few documentaries could be as different as “March of the Penguins” and “Ghosts of Cite Soleil,” a scary, fascinating documentary about gang life in Haiti’s worst slum. The comparison comes to mind because it is difficult to decide which film would have been the more challenging and profoundly discomforting to make. If only due to the access achieved, there has never been anything quite like Asger Leth’s film; it’s amazing it even exists and that the director is still alive. Rough as can be in both content and style, “Ghosts” will be welcome everywhere tough, provocative docus are shown.
The United Nations has declared Cite Soleil “the most dangerous place on Earth”; this slum of Port au Prince, populated by up to 500,000 people, makes the townships of South Africa look like Beverly Hills. As shown in the film, which was lensed in 2004, it’s an entirely lawless place presided over by sinister chimeres, or ghosts — violent young men allegedly employed and armed by then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and so named because given their typically brief lifespans, they’re already dead in a sense.
The chimeres are controlled by a few gang leaders representing various Cite Soleil neighborhoods. When you conjure up your worst nightmare image of an amoral, doped-up, gun-waving gangster who couldn’t care less if you live or die, you’ve got the guys who are front-and-center in this movie.
Leth is the son of Danish filmmaker and longtime Haiti resident Jorgen Leth, who collaborated with Lars von Trier on 2003 release “The Five Obstructions.” While it is sometimes difficult to believe that the self-described “thugsters” are letting him film what we’re seeing, Leth evidently appealed to the criminals’ desire for self-glorification, and they allowed him to cover their lives for several months in 2004, a pivotal year that marked Aristide’s flight from office and the country.
The main subjects are 2pac and Bily, 20-ish brothers loyal to Aristide who lord it over separate parts of Cite Soleil. 2pac is the classic, charismatic gangster — arrogant, full of hubris and, in his case, keen to become a rapper like the man from whom he took his name. Bily seems a tad brighter, if less magnetic, and hopes to rise through the ranks of Aristide’s Lavalas political party all the way to president.
There are young women and little children in the background who may or may not be related to these men, but there are strikingly few signs of bonds or beliefs — no parents, religion, ideology or even a gangster code to live by. The two blood brothers have their disputes and at one point are on the verge of killing each another. It’s all about survival, control over a tiny patch of turf and longshot dreams of getting out.
One of the very few Haitians to have made a name for himself in the world at large is musician Wyclef Jean. He’s 2pac’s idol, and at one point 2pac manages to get the New York-based singer-composer on the phone and sing one of his songs for him. Jean was recruited by Leth to serve as exec producer and collaborate on the score, which will increase the pic’s visibility and credibility in some quarters.
A key and rather ambiguous figure is a white, blond Frenchwoman, Lele, described as a relief worker, although what she does in this regard is unclear. More relevantly, she acts as a conduit and buffer between the filmmakers and the brothers. The brothers both come to fancy her, and, unsurprisingly, she ends up choosing 2pac. One suspects there’s more of a behind-the-scenes story involving Lele than is revealed.
Backgrounding the gangsters’ everyday routines is the growing turmoil surrounding Aristide, serving a second term as president after having been exiled in 1991. As the action unfolds, he is under increasing pressure to step down, and once he does, the situation changes dramatically for his slum-based enforcers. The new police chief announces his intention to go after the chimeres, American and French troops patrol Cite Soleil, and a Disarmament Day is set to collect illicit weapons.
The housecleaning may cut off the head of the serpent — a climactic accounting of what happened to the various gang leaders is pretty astounding — but nothing on the horizon can possibly deal with the dead-end cycle of violence that keeps turning out impoverished, uneducated youth with no options. What’s on view in the film is appalling and startling but intimate enough to be a human story rather than just a sociological snapshot.
Mostly using a 16mm camera, but with some video as well, Leth and co-director/lenser Milos Loncarevic get in close and personal, hanging in tight in their subjects’ dismal homes but mostly on forbidding streets where one would never dare go in real life; even local taxi drivers, it is revealed, refuse to venture into Cite Soleil, the expanse of which is revealed in an impressive aerial shot. Some broadcast and archival footage fills out the greater picture.