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Chimères dans l'Hood: Tracking the 'Ghosts of Cité Soleil'

By Cathleen Rountree

Asger Leth's Ghosts of CitéSoleil, which opens in theaters on June 27 through THINKFilm, follows the stories of two brothers, 2Pac and Bily, both leaders of then Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's sinister armed gangs called chimres, or "ghosts."

Leth, who has directed many shorts, commercials and music videos, is the son of distinguished Danish director Jørgen Leth, who, as teacher at the National Film School of Denmark, counted among his students Lars von Trier and his comrades in the Dogme 95 school. Leth senior has lived in Haiti since 1991 and introduced his son to the impoverished capital Port-au-Prince, whose slums are considered by the United Nations to be "the most dangerous place on earth."

The intimate, virtually assaultive cinematography and MTV-style editing (Leth and his primary cinematographer, Milos Loncarevic, used five Sony mini-DV camcorders) viscerally suck the viewer into this world of abject poverty, drug use, senseless murder and, yes, "gangsta rap." 2Pac and Bily both fantasize about stardom on the order of their expat countryman, Wyclef Jean (one of the film's producers and composers, who has a brief cameo).

IDA's Cathleen Rountree caught up with Leth following a screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May.

International Documentary Association: Did the making of Cité affect your position on Haiti's exiled former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide?

Asger Leth: I've been going to Haiti for years. When Aristide came to power, I was a big, big fan of his. But then over the years, there was a gradual slide into corruption. I know people who were persecuted by him, people who got killed by him or his associates.

Aristide was a man of the people. He was the hope--a big beacon of hope after "Papa Doc" [Francois Duvalier], "Baby Doc" [Jean-Claude Duvalier] and the many, many years of darkness during a lot of short-lived dictatorships. Then he got thrown out of the country in a military coup, and he was later re-instated. So it was like, Great, he's coming back. But then, he started doing some weird things; he dissolved the military, which, at that time, seemed like a good idea.

But then the rumors started that he was making his own secret military. You only do that if you really want to hang on to your power, and if you want to use the military for things that the military is not supposed to do.

IDA: Was it the first Bush Administration that took him out of power in 1991?

AL: It's a matter of contention. The Clinton Administration put him back in power. And then slowly, but surely, it became evident to various international groups that Aristide was no longer who he claimed to be. His last election was flawed in many ways.

So other countries started withdrawing their support. International aid stopped flowing in, because they demanded that he correct the results. And he never wanted to do that, which I found extremely arrogant, especially since he didn't even have to correct it much; he would still hold a massive majority.

Things started getting worse and worse in Haiti. Political opposition started taking to the streets, demanding all kinds of changes, and Aristide didn't like that. So he started using his gangs to intimidate the opposition--mentally, physically, psychologically, in all kinds of ways. That's when the gangs became stronger and stronger.

IDA: But there was conflict among the gangs as well.


AL: Yeah, there were a lot of gangs and a lot of conflict, but the major bastions of Aristide's gangs were in the Soleil--there were five gangs there. Four of them were clearly working for Aristide. The last one was more dubious. He also had contact with the opposition leader. At one point there was a question about his loyalty and Aristide demanded that he kill three of his closest friends to prove his loyalty. And he did that. So that was the environment.

Then another rebellion started up north with another chimère gang that was very, very aggressive and very mean. It was so aggressive that it became too obvious for the international community to continue supporting Haiti.

So Aristide threw one of the chimère gang leaders in jail; his group of people weren't too happy about that, so they busted him out of prison. He then wanted to go on the radio and TV to talk about his connection with Aristide; then he was killed. The gangs freaked out and said, "Okay, we're no longer working for Aristide. We're going to revolt against him." So that's how the whole thing started, and they were joined by ex-military, death-squad people and all kinds of other shady characters.

IDA: The Danish film industry seems to be enjoying a kind of new wave. There's so much creative energy and a great deal of support for cinema there, especially with the Danish Film Institute.

AL: Yes, absolutely. I think cinema is the dominating art form in Denmark. We also come from a long history of film. The Nordisk Film Company, which is my producer, is the oldest functioning film company in the world. They've been making great films for 101 years! We go back to Carl Theodor Dreyer. We are very proud of that, and we're trying not to let that heritage down.

First of all, we're a small country of five million people. And that's a very small amount of people speaking a language. And small languages have trouble financing films, simply because it's hard to sell enough tickets to support a film. So we need the support from the Danish Film Institute. And we really have a great, great governmental organization supporting our films, which makes it possible to take some chances, because our films are not entirely privately financed. That makes it much easier for directors to experiment with film language and go in new directions, because you're not going to make some producer feel like he's risking his entire company on some wild venture.

IDA: Do you think this resurgence of Danish film began with the Dogme 95 collective?

AL: Absolutely. We had a slump for many years in the '70s and '80s, so when von Trier, Vinterberg, Levring and Kragh-Jacobsen formed the Dogme movement, it really spurred a new energy. It was a way of saying, Look, we are from here, we have this support system, we can challenge the way films are told, we can experiment with film language.


IDA: I'm curious about the sort of MTV style of editing in Cité. It works well because of the energy, because of the youth of your subject, and because of their involvement with music as well as the hip-hop soundtrack provided by Wyclef Jean.

AL: I really do think that too many documentaries are too boring and too long and have too many talking heads. And many filmmakers are too infatuated with the idea that if they just hold an image long enough then it becomes Art.

There should be room for storytelling in documentaries, from an art form point of view, from a filmmaker's point of view, but also from a genre's point of view. Documentary film work can very quickly become a small club of initiated members who make films for themselves and for an audience that is already interested in documentaries. It's a shame to limit documentaries to that; you should be able to reach a wider audience. People need to be educated about the world. They need to see a different world than the one they see outside their doors..

The only area of filmmaking where it's really interesting and where you can really experiment is in documentaries. I think it's too bad that not a lot of people are doing it, because there are no rules in documentary. Filmmaking is filmmaking, and there's not enough emphasis on the fact that documentary filmmaking is an art form, and it's actually the freest art form within filmmaking. A documentary can be anything. It can be an article or a poem or a diary or a portrait or whatever. It can also be a narrative structure.

IDA: While you were filming in Haiti, did you feel safe, or pretty much continually physically threatened?

AL: I never felt safe. It's a really, really daunting task to go someplace for lengthy periods of time and not feel safe. But Milos Loncarevic shot a massive amount of the really dangerous footage.

IDA: So you weren't filming together.

AL: No, most of the time in different places to get the best production value.

IDA: Would you put yourself back in a situation like that again?

AL: No, no, never. You go, and you put everything on the line and it's a point of no return. Not just in the story structure, but in the shooting of a film. So, you gotta go all the way.

Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is a film journalist and critic and author of nine books including The Movie Lovers' Club, which explores the process of creating community through film discussion groups. She covers film festivals and writes extensively about films and directors for print and online publications. She taught writing, film studies, women's studies and multicultural studies for 16 years at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her blog at closely follows the work of female directors and global women's issues as addressed in films.