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Ghosts of Cité Soleil

Documentary focuses on two brothers caught in Haitian slum

By Patricia Ingold

Ghosts of Cité Soleil
Directed by Asger Leth and Milos

In February 2004, Danish film director Asger Leth was in the troubled nation of Haiti to work on a film about local gang leaders. As he filmed, rebellion swept the country and controversial President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled to Africa. The rebellion and its aftermath add a particular resonance to Leth’s unsettling documentary, Ghosts of Cité Soleil.

The film focuses on brothers Bily and 2Pac, enforcers in a gang of armed thugs. Known locally as Chimères (ghosts), the gangs are paid to intimidate opponents of Aristide’s government in the streets of Port-au-Prince’s notorious slum, Cité Soleil.

Softspoken Bily is unexpectedly humane, giving money to children for school and talking of one day becoming president. Brother 2Pac is lean and menacing, and gets plenty of screen time to indulge in his drug-fuelled monologues. Advancement for him is a career as a rap singer. After Aristide flees Haiti, the brothers are forced to hand over their weapons to UN peacekeepers and face an uncertain future. As 2Pac observes, the new government will always take revenge on the defenders of the old regime.

Ghosts of Cité Soleil has the look and sound of a music video. A hand-held camera captures the urgent, angry streets to the beat of a music score by Haitian-born rap star Wyclef Jean. News reports from the era fill in the political details. It falters when the scripting gets too heavy-handed, such as an awkward resolution of a love triangle between the two brothers and a French aid worker, and a shamelessly self-promoting scene with Wyclef Jean. These sequences appear to have been staged and detract from the effectiveness of the film.

The film has enormous sympathy for Bily and 2Pac. One wonders how the film would have played out if the rebellion hadn’t happened and the brothers continued to rule inside Cité Soleil. The guns they carry are not toys. The director was either not permitted or chose not to reveal the full scope of their activities within the slum. What remains is a pessimistic story of victims bound by blood, trapped by poverty and violence, who might as well already be dead. They’re not called Chimères for nothing.

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