The Reeler


June 25, 2007

To Haiti and Back Again

Ghosts of Cité Soleil director Asger Leth escapes with the story in harrowing new doc

Under the gun: 2pac, one of the brothers profiled in Asger Leth's Ghosts of Cité Soleil (Photo: ThinkFilm)

Asger Leth didn't set out to become a documentary filmmaker. Haiti turned him into one.

"I had my eyes on Haiti for years," Leth told The Reeler in a recent interview. "My father's a film director [the Danish legend Jørgen Leth], and he brought me there and said, 'You know, look, man: There are stories all over the place.' And I think that's true. ... Life and death are very evident in Haiti. I was working on doing this feature film project, and I was writing on it for a while, and I started to be attracted to the fact -- or mystified -- that there were so many stories in Haiti in front of me that became stronger and stronger. It just became mind-boggling. I realized the real story is real life."

Ghosts of Cité Soleil, the film that emerged from Leth's Haitian epiphany (and opens Wednesday in New York), follows two brothers, 2pac and Bily, gang leaders in the sprawling slum of Cité Soleil. The brothers, along with several other gangs, were employed by former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to intimidate and disappear political opponents. After Aristide was deposed in a coup in 2004, the subsequent administration came after the gangs in a symbolic attempt to rid Haiti of political corruption. Leth found Bily and 2pac through Milos Loncarevic, a cinematographer who had been filming in the slum with the help of Élénore Senlis, a French aid worker. The three compiled more than 400 hours of footage under extremely dangerous conditions by becoming friends with the brothers, who protected the filmmakers while they traversed Cité Soleil.

Tall, athletic and strikingly handsome, Bily and 2pac seem both charmed and cursed as they stalk through the slum, rifles at their sides, switching effortlessly between Haitian Creole and French-accented English. Bily, the younger brother, still sees Aristide as the greatest hope for the Haitian people and himself as a Che Guevara figure. At 26, 2pac has grown cynical and wants nothing more than to leave Haiti and become a rap star. These political and philosophical differences, compounded by the new government's pressure to disarm, lead to serious tensions between the two. It doesn't help matters much when 2pac beds the woman whom Bily has been working overtime to seduce.

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The uneasy yet deeply felt relationship between Bily and 2pac lends the film a distinctly narrative quality, which was Leth's ideal from the start. "We wanted to push the limits of what documentary could do," he said. "I wanted to find a story that could be told in the dramatic structure of a feature film, and feature films have strong main characters and strong enemies. The dreams and hopes and mission of the hero is clear and so is the enemy; that's what you need to make a strong dramatic structure. I realized that if I could get that, I could help tell the story of the slum."

At times, Ghosts feels like fiction -- something like City of God crossed with Julius Caesar -- but the brothers' violent culture never allows the illusion to last. Guns, threats, boasts: all three dominate each scene filmed in public. Bily talks about helping the Haitian people escape the slum in one scene; a few scenes later, out of irritation, he shoots one of his own soldiers in the foot.

Confessional moments in which 2pac speaks directly and earnestly to the camera, voicing his hopes for himself and his country, raise the specter of reality television, but this is no Real World: Port au Prince. Leth rejected any suspicion that a desire for fame compelled Bily and 2pac to allow the filmmakers to document their lives. "This whole thing that has happened in our culture, especially in the last 10 to 15 years with reality TV shows, with people becoming celebrities -- this whole celebrity drive in itself without any substance is nothing they are into," he insisted. "When you come from Cité Soleil and you have the talent of music and you think you have the chance to get out of the slum and make it big ... the want is not the idea of being on a magazine cover in the States. It's the idea of becoming something to give back to the slum -- to give some hope back."

Currently at work on a dramatic feature with Imagine Entertainment, Leth said he sees stories rather than strict genre loyalty in his future. "I'm a storyteller, not a documentary filmmaker," he said. "Some stories need to be told as a documentary because they're stronger there; some stories need to be told as narrative features because they're stronger there. That's the way I want to live my life."

Comments (1)

The Ghosts of Cite Soleil: Leni Reifenstahl Goes to Haiti

The director is Danish, not German, but The Ghosts of Cite Soleil makes heroes of the made-in-Washington leaders of Haiti’s 2004 coup in a manner reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s adoration for Adolf Hitler in her famous film from the 1930’s, Triumph of the Will. It builds a web of lies - lies of omission and lies of commission - into the “Big Lie” - a stylized, decontextualized, post-modern, sexy/violent piece of propaganda disguised as a documentary, full of guns but signifying nothing.

The Ghosts of Cite Soleil claims to reveal the intimate personal lives of two gangsters who are brothers, Bily and 2Pac, in the deprived Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. When introducing them to several foreign journalists, filmmaker Kevin Pina (Harvest of Hope, Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits) made the following comment, "Billy and I had a falling out over the question of his accepting money from foreign journalists to hype this question of Aristide and gangsters. The more they paid the more outlandish became his claims . . .”

The director, Asger Leth, would have us believe the majority of people of Cite Soleil don’t support President Aristide, and that those who do are forced to do so by armed gangsters. He ignores the fact that Aristide was twice elected by huge majorities in country-wide elections, and that massive pro-Aristide demonstrations have taken place in Cite Soliel repeatedly since the coup. In one scene, a Cite Soleil crowd shouts, “Five full years, Five full years.” Leth translates, but does not explain the significance - the people want Aristide back to finish his full five-year term.

The film doesn't tell us that “Opposition leaders” Andy Apaid and Charles Henry Baker are also sweatshop owners who hate Aristide because he wanted to raise the minimum wage and make them pay taxes, which the rich don’t do in Haiti.

We’re told President Aristide left voluntarily - no mention of his kidnapping by the U.S. military and his ongoing banishment from the continent. We see jubilant crowds of Aristide opponents waving as the coup makers drive into town, giving the impression most Haitians supported the coup. We don’t see the U.S./French/Canadian soldiers guarding the route and making the entrance possible. We don’t learn that Port-au-Prince was totally defended the day of Aristide’s kidnapping, and the coup leaders would never have been able to take it over militarily. Instead Uncle Sam came to the rescue.

We’re not told that Louis Jodel Chamblain worked with the Duvalier dictatorship’s brutal militia, the Tonton Macoutes, in the 1980s; that following a military coup against Aristide in 1991, he was the “operations guy” for the FRAPH paramilitary death squad, accused of murdering uncounted numbers of Aristide supporters and introducing gang rape into Haiti as a military weapon.

We’re not told that Guy Phillipe is a former Haitian police chief who was trained by US Special Forces in Ecuador in the early 1990s, or that the U.S. embassy admitted that Phillipe was involved in the transhipment of narcotics, one of the key sources of funds for paramilitary attacks on the poor in Haiti. He says the man he most admires is former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Leth portrays both of these men as credible spokespersons, not gangsters.

Where did the weapons of the coup-makers come from? Who organized and trained them? Who spent tens of millions of dollars to create an “opposition movement” in Haiti? The United States is the real ghost in this film - it simply does not exist, except for its official version of events, scripted by George W. Bush, which The Ghosts of Cite Soleil follows scrupulously.

The Ghosts of Cite Soleil plays like a manipulative music video, featuring music by Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean, also the executive producer, who supported the coup and pushed the State Department line among the conscious hip-hop community and progressive celebrities in Hollywood. This contrasts to the principled stand of Danny Glover, Ruby Dee and her late, great husband Ossie Davis. You can almost hear the violins behind Chamblain, as he talks about his return to Haiti, but the music becomes dissonant and menacing behind Aristide or behind 2Pac and Bily, who speak English no less, but we never learn why. Like we never learn who, or why about anything in this movie, a piece of soft core propaganda, cleverly, consciously, and seductively made. It’s being distributed by Sony, and may someday show at a theatre near you. People get ready, the Ghosts are coming.

by Charlie Hinton
Haiti Action Committee

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