The debut film by director Asger Leth (son of Jørgen Leth of The Five Obstructions fame) is an edgy documentary about gangsters in the desperately impoverished Port-au-Prince neighborhood known as Cité Soleil. Startling in its immediacy (just how did a filmmaker get that close to these guys, anyway?), it’s a scary but compelling nonfiction look at the kind of violent, charismatic characters who often populate narrative films. The titular ghosts, or chimères, are the common gangsters who ruled the streets of Cité Soleil during the rein of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The film chronicles the events leading up to Aristide’s exile in 2004, the immediate aftermath, and its implications for the chimeres, who were seen as Aristide loyalists. The truth as laid out by Leth is a little more complicated — one of the gang leaders, Bily, believes in his country’s leadership and even has political aspirations, while another, Bily’s brother 2pac, is more jaded.
The aesthetic is a lot closer to MTV News than, say, the similarly grim Darwin’s Nightmare. While it certainly progresses at an engaging clip, the editorial strategy — lots of quick edits and jump cuts move the interviews right along — consistently made me wonder what, exactly had been elided. (I felt sort of like the editor was continually terrified that the audience’s mind would wander if he didn’t trim each conversation to the bone.) And the curiously undeveloped subplot involving Lele, the blonde health-care worker from France, would play like the hilariously lazy contrivance of a hack genre screenwriter if the apparent photographic evidence of a love triangle involving her, Bily and 2pac weren’t right up there on screen.
Despite their scary, I-don’t-give-a-fuck tendencies, these chimères are charming, boyish men, demonstrating a propensity for wiry bluster and a capacity for brotherly love, all the while second-guessing and dissecting each other’s loyalties. 2pac scoffs at his brother’s ambitions to become President, all the while nursing his own incipient career as rapper. At one point, he considers his own looming death, noting that he believes his mother dwells in heaven and concluding that he will never join her there. (In context, his certainty is surely understandable but still a little heartbreaking.)
The mean streets are visualized here with the hallucinatory digital stylization popularized by City of God, but scaled down to a less-dazzling DV level (some of the footage was shot in 16mm, but it was all transferred to DV in post), with saturated colors suggesting the intensity of life experience in the slums and the blasted-out whites and yellows that dominate the background of nearly every exterior shot suggesting an inescapable aridness. This is a film that burns.
Finally, during an elegaic coda set to music by Brian Eno, that same burn suggests light as well as heat, and thus some kind of ascension — perhaps there’s room even in Cité Soleil for the vision of a loving God. B
IMDb: Ghosts of Cité Soleil
Directed by Asger Leth
Edited by Adam Nielsen