Ghosts of Cite Soleil

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Viewing the political tumult that ravaged Haiti in 2004 through the perspective of two gang-leader brothers, Ghosts of Cite Soleil details the vicious and seductive amorality of a life of crime. Director Asger Leth and co-director Milos Loncarevic burrow deep into the milieu of these two men, and their documentary offers a critique on power, poverty, and the pervasive influence of American popular culture on the wider world.

Ghosts of Cite Soleil goes back to the end of President Jean-Bertrand Aristides controversial reign in Haiti, when rebels would soon overthrow his regime and force him out of the country. The documentary focuses on two young men: Bily and Haitian 2pac, brothers who are leaders of two of the countrys five fiercest gangs. Armed with high-powered weapons and a flair with words, Haitian 2pac fancies himself a rapper, dreaming of eventually leaving Haiti behind to pursue a music career in America. Bily is less braggadocios than 2pac, but he too exhibits a steely detachment and a love for American gangster rap.

These two lead their gangs, who consist of Haitis poorest residents, to stop uprisings within the country against Aristide, often resorting to force and intimidation to achieve their goals. 2pac in particular seems to enjoy the power he earns by being tangentially connected to the president, but he still feels disrespected, arrogantly referring to himself as an outlaw soldier while referencing the violent lyrics and mindset of gangster rap in his tirades.

Into 2pac and Bilys life comes Lele, a French aid worker who is trying to improve conditions within the Haitian slums but who also understands that it is the gang leaders who control these regions. Though fearful for her life, she also becomes a romantic interest for both brothers, inadvertently helping to cause a split between them. As Aristides presidency begins to lose legitimacy, 2pac and Bily face greater threats from his enemies who want to make an example of the gangs sympathetic to Aristide.

Though a documentary, Ghosts of Cite Soleil has the sort of compelling characters and narrative urgency of a first-rate thriller. Because of its exotic locale and hyper-saturated visual style, its hard not to compare the film to the work of Fernando Meirelles, who in City of God also examined the intersection of extreme poverty and ruthless crime. Like Meirelles, Leth and Loncarevic do not forcefully condemn their subjects behavior; instead, Ghosts of Cite Soleil allows the audience to live in these gang leaders skin.

This tactic proves powerful since 2pac in particular is a dynamic, magnetic onscreen force. Whether charming Lele or emulating his hip-hop idols with his attire and body language, 2pac is a natural leader, exuding substantial amounts of sex appeal and danger. Despite his positive attributes, his insensitivity to others and his callow disregard for his actions make him monstrous, although one cant help but wonder how he might have thrived in a less-hostile part of the globe.

By contrast, Bily possesses all the attributes of the less-outgoing sibling in a close family. More soft-spoken and reflective, Bily legitimately supports Aristide as a man of the people, while his brother largely savors the power and connections Aristides support brings. Though Bily never explicitly says so, Ghosts of Cite Soleil makes the case that he secretly envies 2pacs charisma, a long-held frustration that will come bubbling to the surface once the Haitian gangs face a threat from Aristides enemies.

Another fascinating individual is Lele. At first, with her white skin and civilized manner, she seems like a timid outsider, a perfect surrogate for the audience. But as she slowly turns from outsider to love interest, she becomes deeper entangled in the two mens affairs. Consequently, the audience too seems complicit in this burgeoning romantic triangle our surrogate has chosen between the two men, and her decision speaks to the natural order of attraction and sexual chemistry. Though its not as thoroughly explored as it could be, these three peoples love story adds an unexpectedly humanizing element to this story of killers and thugs.

Leth and Loncarevic incorporate an occasionally flashy, commercial style to their filmmaking, as if trying to elevate their documentary from the realms of staid PBS niceties and into the more pulse-pounding world of narrative storytelling. This style can sometimes seem too slick for its own good, cheapening the harshness of the Haitians lives, but it is also offset by spectacularly intimate access to 2pac and Bily, who speak unguardedly to the camera.

Leth, the son of renowned filmmaker Jrgen Leth (who was the subject of Lars Von Triers The Five Obstructions) spent many years in Haiti, which undoubtedly helped familiarize him with the country and its customs. This understanding plays out especially well when the film demonstrates the effect of American culture on Haitian society. Beyond the rappers 2pac and Bily admire 2pacs name is itself an homage to hip-hop artist Tupac 2Pac Shakur American brand names and politicians are mentioned with regularity, suggesting a society living in the shadow of a country that is only a two-hour flight away but, in reality, worlds apart. Its the considerable skill of Ghosts of Cite Soleil to help bridge those two worlds, bringing us face to face with unsavory individuals who are hard to like but impossible to resist.

Credits

Running time: 85 minutes

Director: Asger Leth
Co-director: Milos Loncarevic
Production companies: Sony BMG Film, Nordisk Film, Sakpase Films, Sunset Productions
US Distribution: THINKFilm
Producers: Mikael Chr. Rieks, Tomas Radoor, Seth Kanegis
Executive Producers: Kim Magnusson, Cary Woods, Jrgen Leth, George Hickenlooper, Wyclef Jean, Jerry Wonda Duplessis
Editor: Adam Nielsen
Cinematography: Milos Loncarevic, Frederik Jacobi, Asger Leth