Sundance 2012: Grand Jury Prizewinner Eugene Jarecki on Drug War Doc, 'The House I Live In' (Q&A)

The House I Live In

U.S. Documentary Competition

On Jan. 28, Eugene Jarecki, who won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for his 2005 documentary Why We Fight, won the 2012 Grand Jury Prize for his new drug-war film The House I Live In. He tells The Hollywood Reporter the horrifying lessons he learned in making it, and what the Sundance Film Festival has meant to him.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you make The House I Live In?

Jarecki: It is certainly the most personal film I've ever made. I was inspired to make it by the life experiences of a person very dear to me, Nannie Jeter, an African American woman I have known since three days after I was born. Her family became very close with mine. Growing up in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement we all lived in a somewhat utopian place where it seemed like young African American kids and a chubby white suburban kid like me could kind of get along on par. Over the years I noticed I found opportunity and privileges anyone would be grateful for. The same was not true for them. What went wrong? Nannie said it was drugs in American life. Drugs had impacted many members of her family. And the more I talked to people the more they said, "Well, sure, drugs are bad, but it's the drug war that’s done the damage, far more than the drugs ever had done."

THR: When did the war start?

Jarecki: It was declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 and 40 years and 44 million arrests later we've lost over a trillion dollars, and yet drugs are more available than ever before, sold by younger and younger kids, the purity level is higher. So none of the stated goals of that war have been achieved and yet it continues to grow. More and more American communities get swept up into the prison-industrial vortex, so that small towns everywhere now are deeply reliant on the life-blood of money and jobs that hosting a prison promises. America has become the world's largest jailer with 2.3 million people behind bars, a larger percentage of our population than any other country, except perhaps Korea.

THR: How many would we have if we didn't incarcerate drug offenders?

Jarecki: Between a quarter and a third of those in jail right now are in there for drug crimes.

THR: Who did you interview?

Jarecki: Dealers, family members of dealers and drug crime victims, wardens, cops, lawyers, judges, senators, and activistsin about 25 states. Drug laws go back to the 1800s. The people being put away in the 1860s were Chinese opium users and yet the number one users of opium in America at that time were middle-aged white women. This was followed by the persecution of blacks for cocaine in the early 1900s, and the persecution of Mexican migrant laborers for marijuana. So we have always had drug laws that were very much race-driven.

THR: What changed with Nixon in 1971?

Jarecki: What had been a rag-tag history of somewhat racist lawmaking got codified into the formal enterprise of a war, with the profiteering, political engineering, entrenched interest, corruption, self-perpetuation, and the failure of reason, because once you declare a war the only way you can end it is by declaring victory or defeat. Prior to declaring it a war it wouldn't have been that hard to retreat from inappropriate drug laws. But Nixon spent two-thirds of his drug budget on treatment and only a third on law enforcement.

THR: What are we spending now?

Jarecki: We spend much more on law enforcement and a tiny fraction on treatment. Nixon’s impact was actually better than a lot of his successors. You can lay at the feet of Reagan and Clinton the real ramping up of this drug war. He planted the seeds and they watered them into tremendous blossoming.

THR: Your 2010 short film urging people to transfer money from big banks to credit unions and smaller banks, Move Your Money, went viral on the web. How many people did it get unaddicted to the big banks?

Jarecki: I'm told four million people moved their money out of major banks.

THR: What do you hope to accomplish with The House I Live In?

Jarecki: My hope is to move people away from the drug war in the same way, to move them away from believing tough-on-crime rhetoric from politicians that is simply fortifying their political standing and lining the pockets of corporations who benefit at the expense of everyday people.

THR: You took your first short film to Sundance in 1992.

Jarecki: I was about 23. You really felt like you were surrounded by a generation of people who were coming into their own. I was sort of clutching at their coattails a little bit: Rodriguez, Linklater, Tarantino, people blazing a path that I thought were really admirable and I wanted to be a part of. I felt like I was stumbling into the ground floor of it with great happiness, but also with a lot of certain measured intimidation at some of the real forces that were revealing themselves as being a tremendous new generation of American creators.

THR: On the other hand perhaps it was easier to find parking?

Jareckio: It was a lot easier to find parking. It was inevitable that something that is as good an idea as Sundance would become so popular. It is busting at the seams in terms of popularity, attendance, complexity, corporate sponsorship desires, and all the rest. The surprising part is the way in which Sundance has managed to handle that. That they have done it as gracefully as I think it can be done given the practical reality.  I don't know a festival that gives movies a kind of TLC and caring deep thought that the viewing staff at Sundance does. You never get the sense of people falling through the cracks, notwithstanding the incredible number of submissions they get. I get the sense, and I don't just say this as someone who has submitted before, where I'm surer of getting eyes on it in the right way. I think its true of everyone I talk to, even very young people who submit, always feel they get handled incredibly responsibly. With my films, to be perfectly honest, Sundance has taken a leap when I submit the film of selecting it because none of my films have been entirely ready. That means in every case they've said, "Okay. We see enough here for us to take a leap." With most institutions, the bigger they get the more risk averse they become. These guys somehow have managed to understand that if they become too risk averse it will reduce the quality of product. I know this not just through me, but through other people, everybody feels like they get a very fair shake. I think that's part of what's interesting about my memories of the festival is that I came there when it was much more of a one-horse town than it is now and somehow, despite the massive explosion in traffic, parking, logistics, and everything else, the heart and soul of the experience has remained largely unchanged and if anything improved.