In February 2004, after months of violent conflict and large-scale political protests, Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown and forced into exile. When US and French troops entered the capital, Port-Au-Prince, as a UN peacekeeping force, they faced a state in which corruption, violence and desperate poverty had combined to completely undermine the rule of law.
Asger Leth’s documentary, Ghost Of Cité Soleil, follows these events, concentrating on their impact on 2Pac and Bily; brothers, rivals and gang-leaders in the Cité Soleil slum area of Port-Au-Prince. Their gangs, known as ChimíÂ¨res (or Ghosts) were originally armed by President Aristide and employed by him as bodyguards and to intimidate opposition groups. As the film begins the two gang leaders are reaping the benefits of this connection. They have cars and guns and effectively run Cité Soleil themselves, Aristide having brutally subverted the city’s police force.
These characters, 2Pac and Bily, are the main focus and strength of the film. 2Pac, in particular, senses how precarious his position is, even as he enjoys its privileges. Both are vividly aware that everyone in Cité Soleil has only a tenuous grip on life, irrespective of their status. ‘Whatever I do, I die’, says Bily. Their attitudes towards the more wasteful and murderous instincts of their gang members are contradictory, like their attitudes towards the possibility of peace in Haiti and the future in general. 2Pac dreams of leaving. Inspired by his idol, Tupac Shakur, he works on his rapping skills, embracing hip hop as a voice and as a possible escape route. He even phones Wyclef Jean, who has Haitian roots, and raps to him.
We also see the attempts of Lele, a French relief worker, to help the people of Cité Soleil and her involvement with 2Pac and Bily. She relies on their influence to let her operate safely in the slums (presumably like Leth himself) and she becomes 2Pac’s lover and also an intermediary for the gangs as the UN and the new regime seek to disarm the ChimíÂ¨res.
Leth shows us his three main characters and their ambiguities straight. A gallery of talking heads give political context but otherwise we are left to ourselves to judge 2Pac, Bily and Lele’s actions and speculate about motives and unseen events. At times this is frustrating as questions go as much unasked as unanswered. Lele’s decision to work in Haiti is undoubtedly courageous but her links to the gang leaders must have compromised her position and the implications are not explored. Nor is the involvement of Wyclef Jean fully explained. He provides the soundtrack to the film and is seen talking with 2Pac on the phone but the background to this remains obscure.
Leth doesn’t explain his own decisions either. His father made several films in Haiti but neither this nor the path that led him from his home country, Denmark, to the Cité Soleil is revealed. Nor do we get any sense of whether the director, like Lele, was compromised by his closeness to the ChimíÂ¨res. It feels like his approach is consciously meant to emphasise the actions of 2Pac and Bily, reducing those around them to witnesses rather than protagonists. The advantage is that we get a well-focused portrait of the two brothers but is this justification enough to reject potentially intriguing lines of enquiry? Perhaps Leth was uncomfortable probing moral niceties in the middle of a slum with no food, no water and no justice. Alternatively, with the situation in Haiti being described as a ‘silent emergency’ it is possible that Leth was reluctant to dilute or confuse his attempt to break that silence. Either way, Ghosts of Cité Soleil feels like a brave and dangerous undertaking rather than skilful film-making, its efforts to engage undone by the simplistic viewpoint and the perplexing omissions.