Ghosts of Cite Soleil

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The raw, uncompromising "Ghosts of Cite Soleil" from Danish writer-director Asger Leth is a relentless, in-your-face, verite documentary set in war-torn Haiti during the reign and fall of the Aristide government circa 2004. It's an unforgettable, visceral journey into the heart of darkness, grueling poverty and anarchy. Imagery of garbage-strewn streets and squalor as well as news footage and a pulsing soundtrack by Haitian-born Wyclef Jean, who also is an executive producer and appears briefly, add to the docu's hard-edged, driving force.

"Ghosts" will have a limited U.S. theatrical run this month and could build a respectable audience with good press and word-of-mouth.

Shooting in a gritty, guerilla style, primarily with a hand-held 16mm camera, Leth and co-director Milos Loncarevic put themselves in considerable danger following the violent, dead-end lives of two charismatic brothers with nothing to lose. 2Pac and Bily are gang leaders in Cite Soleil, one of the meanest and poorest slums in Port-au-Prince. The phrase, "They could just as easily kill you as look at you" comes to mind with this duo. (The ghosts of the title are the already dead or "chimeres," armed gangs employed by Aristide to do his dirty work, whose members don't have much life expectancy).

Slim and taut, Bily, the more eloquent and philosophical of the two young men, wants to improve his situation. However, he lives by the gun and is prescient enough, as it turns out, to know that oblivion awaits him around the next corner. 2Pac, a profane wannabe rapper, is the pragmatist, a man of action whose sober world view has been toughened by his harsh existence. He's not without aspirations, though, and in one remarkable scene he calls Jean and sings the story of his life over the phone. The enigmatic Lele is a French relief worker involved with both men; all are trapped in a pointless cycle of fear, revenge, rivalries -- real or imagined -- and murder.

Guns are the accessories of choice, and through no fault of the filmmakers, it's difficult to keep up with or sort out the internecine warfare between gangs and the different government regimes. Leth, son of director Jorgen Leth ("The Perfect Human"), lives in Haiti, so he gained extraordinary access to his subjects and won something approaching trust. (The gangsters were, after all, offered an irresistible chance to immortalize themselves on film.) Cloaked in darkness and with the camera inches away from his face, 2Pac free-associates for posterity while sitting on the floor of his dingy shack.

The filmmakers get us in closer than we want to be to these explosive men, tagging along while they're out looking to hurt someone or hanging with their soldiers. Natural-born leaders and killers, the brothers share a battle-worn intelligence and a love of rap. Who knows what they could have been had fate dealt them a better hand. But intuition and history dictate a bloody end to their story. There's no way out for these two, not even through the magic of music.

GHOSTS OF CITE SOLEIL
ThinkFilm
A Nordisk Film A/S, Sakpase Films, Sunset Prods., Independent Pictures production in association with the Danish Film Institute.
Credits:
Director-screenwriter: Asger Leth
Co-director: Milos Loncarevic
Producers: Mikael Chr. Rieks, Tomas Radoor, Seth Kanegis
Executive producers: Kim Magnusson, Cary Woods, Wyclef Jean, George Hickenlooper, Jerry Duplessis, Jorgen Leth
Directors of photography: Asger Leth, Milos Loncarevic
Production designers: Asger Leth
Music: Wyclef Jean, Jerry Duplessis
Editor: Adam Nielsen
Running time -- 90 minutes
No MPAA rating
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