Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which had the honor of playing at Telluride in 2006, is a documentary about two thugs in Haiti. The tone is something like City of God crossed with Jonathan Demme’s documentary about Haitian radio personality The Agronomist. The film packs an emotional punch, but that only partly makes up for the lack of a good story arc.
Out of the Gate
The first direction the movie takes is very promising. We meet two thugs, 2Pac (or “Haitian 2Pac”) and Bily. They are “chimeres” — ghosts — who served as unofficial security for then-president Aristide. “Security,” as often as not, included intimidation of voters and demonstrators who opposed Aristide. Filmmakers Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic include footage of Aristide officially denying the chimeres, but the cameras show us convincing evidence that he’s lying. Before too long, 2Pac is arrested and sent to prison for 2 years. After he is released, he determines to fight Aristide with his rap music.
Had the movie followed this story arc, it would have been excellent. But 2Pac doesn’t have his shit together. So by sticking with him and Bily, the documentary dooms itself to be no bigger and no more inspiring than they are. If only they were criminal masterminds, the movie might have been better.
Day to Day, Scene to Scene
Instead, the story wends from day to day and scene to scene. There is a bit of romance and heartbreak as the two friends fight for the affection of a French aid worker, Lele. There is some infighting in their gang. Eventually there is a serious falling-out between 2Pac and Bily.
These scenes are as interesting as they are because the filmmakers got enough raw footage, thus giving editor Adam Nielsen a lot to work with. There’s almost never a plain, static talking head in this documentary.
But the scenes don’t add up to an interesting whole. It seems like there’s a lot of potential for a film made on the streets of Port au Prince, especially with two gang members as close to the political process as 2Pac and Bily seemingly are. But that potential never gels into something more substantial.
The sense of lost opportunity is illustrated best in a scene after Aristide fled Haiti in 2004. That left a power vacuum and Louis-Jodel Chamblain took over. The gangsters receive a phone call from Chamblain or one of his people. And while 2Pac tries to negotiate like the leader of a serious faction, it’s clear the real power lies elsewhere. It illustrates the insignificance of our documentary’s subjects and makes the whole movie seem like a near miss.
Ghosts of Cite Soleil isn’t bad if you view it as a slice-of-life documentary. Watch it with The Agronomist for an informative double feature on Haiti. But considering that the movie could have — should have — documented a major political coup from the inside, Ghosts of Cite Soleil feels like a disappointment.