“Power is a gun in Haiti,” says Winson “2Pac” Jean, the red-eyed protagonist of Asger Leth’s troubling but undeniably stylish documentary record of the short-lived and brutal reign of this neighborhood gang commander of Cité Soleil, a dirt-poor Port-au-Prince slum. Lacking education, money and strategic acumen, this trash-talking wannabe rapper compensates with drug-addled grandiosity (“I’m pure mafia! My words are nuclear weapons!”), yet he remains powerless without his guns and unable to see that he’s fatally sliding down the greased pole of power politics.
Just two hours from Miami Beach, where thousands of raft-borne refugees washed up in rags to embarrass American presidential candidates in 1992 and again in 2004, Haiti has no rival as the West’s direst economy, the legacy of decades of exploitation, toxic corruption, and homicidal repression. Gone are the notorious Ton Ton Macoutes who enforced street-level terror in the Duvallier years, replaced in president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s regime by a new generation of equally infamous “chimères” (literally “ghosts”), armed thugs used to prop up the government and derail any mass popular movement by attacking unarmed demonstrators (they even broke the legs of the university rector).
In this labyrinth of unforgiving realpolitik, everyday gunfire and casual aggression remain brutal facts of life, with 2Pac contributing his share in the turf he divides with his more guarded brother Bily. Leth’s film scores it greatest success in conveying a nerve-scraping sense of danger enveloping the nation, with an eye for the blistering violence that crackles on and off like short-circuiting electric wires, mirroring the power outages that beset the capital and force meetings to take place lit by flashlight beams.
Documentaries don’t come much more intimate than this, as Leth’s camera stands beside 2Pac in the shower and nestles in the sweaty bedclothes beside him until we can taste the salt in the humid air. The director takes palpable relish in his access, but his filmmaking feels personal in the wrong way—unquestioning and indulgent—because it maintains no distance whatsoever from his subject, trading in the allure of voyeurism that leaves a disturbing aftertaste of enabling.
Coming out of music videos and commercials (he shot his more famous father’s contributions to Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions), Leth employs an oppressively artful style of spasming camerawork and grainy bleached color, with jittery cutting among multiple angles, but its apparent complexity is all visual patchwork. Deceptively striking and busy to the point of distraction, it leaves a hollow feeling that in this film aesthetics trumps ethics.
Anyone can see that 2Pac’s life expectancy will be short, but his own youth and pumped-up gangsta swagger make him unable to understand his rapid progress toward literally becoming a ghost. To construct moments of pathos, Leth applies devices of melodrama to turn the strutting 2Pac vulnerable as he tries to leverage a record contract through Wyclef Jean, or when he spares some attention for his young daughter. Still, the film’s most interesting enigma is Lele, a Frenchwoman who maneuvers the two brothers like chess pieces, a kind of tropical Madame Dubarry dispensing advice on political strategy and stroking their egos while sharing 2Pac’s bed. Intentionally or not, Leth seems oblivious to her position as an aid-worker (a notorious cover for intelligence operatives), noting only that she’s now back in France.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, a right-wing coup empowers the so-called “Cannibal Army,” a ragtag assemblage of torturers and death squad commandants (termed “freedom fighters” by the Bush administration). Newsreel footage shows their advance across the island, seizing power through street gunfights, with U.S. troops following in their wake, conducting house-to-house raids to disarm the Chimères. Cornered, with blood on his hands, 2Pac turns pathetic but the director pulls out all the stops to cast his hard luck story as tragedy, complete with sentimental flashbacks and wailing choirs on the soundtrack.
Leth doesn’t go in for analysis, so he presents the political insurrection as a surprise, rather than the outcome of failed opposition attempts and the ruthless suppression of strikes, including a general strike to protest the International Monetary Fund’s schemes to repeal minimum wage laws and privatize telephone and electricity services. For all the film’s flashy style and dynamic surface excitement, it paints a disappointingly glib vision of Haiti as a hopeless hellhole, clouding our understanding instead of clarifying it with sharp argument and historical context. No travelogue, it’s not even a cry for action and seems ultimately extraneous except as a vivid document of a nation pushed into hell. Haiti’s despair demands a Buñuel, but here gets a Ridley Scott.