Michael Moore’s doc extols Cuba’s universal health care; Asger Leth’s explores another Caribbean island’s universal misery: the Port-au-Prince slum Cité Soleil, identified by the UN as the “most dangerous place on earth.”
Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a prismatic, jagged, none too coherent travelogue—a portrait of Haiti’s post-Aristide political chaos centered on the rivalry between two gang leaders or “ghosts”: the charismatic 2pac (also a rap artist) and his aggrieved brother, Bily. The two supported Aristide, but although both eventually turned against the beleaguered president, they are equally threatened by the rival criminal gangs that deposed Aristide in 2004. Leth allows the two men to speak directly to his camera, mainly in English. Their threats and boasts are made against a roiling backdrop of street demonstrations, suffering babies, power cuts, voodoo rituals, and found surreal images like that of the upended grand piano on the lawn outside Aristide’s trashed mansion. This urgently choppy, often inexplicable, series of incidents finally ignites, as Port-au-Prince becomes a total free-fire zone. Life is already less than cheap; now it’s being given away.
Several times during the course of the movie, 2pac places a long-distance call to his mentor, Wyclef Jean, one of the film’s executive producers, who provided
Ghosts’ score and obligingly phones in its concept: “Rap music influenced those people deep over there—they live by it and they will die by it—and it ain’t no Hollywood movie.” True enough, although there is that inexplicably cheerful French woman who, identifying herself as a relief worker, pops into the proceedings to provide the brothers with an object of erotic rivalry. She sees 2pac as a tragic hero, as does Leth. Indeed, there’s a cosmic irony to 2pac’s fate, as described in the movie’s final titles.
That the most powerful aspect of this story is described rather than shown is one of Ghosts‘ many mysteries. Another is Leth’s remarkable access to his subjects. One citizen of Cité Soleil stares dispassionately into the lens and tells the filmmaker, “I feel like killing you to take the camera.” It’s not difficult to believe he would. Every documentary has its own process; in this case, that backstory might overwhelm the film.