When one door closes, another one opens. All the doors are closed for me.
I will watch anything that is true crime, even more so if there is actual footage and not just re-enactments. and so when this was recommended to me by Netflix I immediately added it to my list. Even before I pressed play I just knew I would enjoy it, and I did.
It reminded me of the Brazilian Epic film City of God which is one of the most memorable films ever. Set in Cite Soleil, a slum in Haiti once referred to as the most dangerous place on earth, the documentary chronicles the lives of gangsters known as Chiméres (ghosts/fire breathing dragons) who serve as the Secret army of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In particular, the story follows two of the gang chiefs, brothers Winston “2pac” Jean, and James “Bily” Petit-Frere for a few months in 2004 around the time Aristide is overthrown. 2pac is the older of the two, and unsurprisingly wants to become a rapper; his little brother Bily has more grandiose dreams of joining the ruling party and becoming president one day. They are all servants of Aristide, a bug eyed accountant looking man who does not blink. 2pac has spent two years in Prison during which he lost all illusions about Aristide’s government. Bily is still a devoted believer in Aristide. This, amongst other things, leads to tensions between the brothers.
I cannot decide who made more of an impression on me; Bily or 2pac. 2pac is quite vivacious and Charismatic. He appears to be a leader and go-getter; he raps on the phone to Wyclef Jean in the hopes of kicking off his rap career, and encourages his boys as best as he can. In a place where men die young and everyone is a walking ghost, he is considered an elder, though he is only 26. He has a lot of opinions: “Fuck Haiti, Fuck Voudou, Fuck God.” He is incredibly lean, they all are; he has 0% body fat with a prominent belly button.
Enter Bily. With the way Bily was introduced, as a man whose ambition is to be president, I thought they were drawing a contrast between him and his older brother 2pac. Perhaps he was not in a gang, and was instead a studious do-gooder. Honestly he looked less a thug and more a substitute teacher. That could be because he was young, I found an article that listed him as 22 at the time of filming. These men were babies. Even more interesting is that he had been a gang Chief for two years, and had been working for Aristide in some form since he was a child. Bily is full of quotes and introspection, and he often breaks into a song in an endearing manner that reminds me of a character in a Nigerian film.
“If you are a rich man you’re supposed to help the poor people. If you see the life of people here; no house to sleep, no job, no water, nothing to eat, no many to pay for the school of the children, but they have a gun. What do you think they can do?
It turns out Bily, though quite the philosopher, is also batshit crazy and makes 2pac seem like Desmond Tutu. Two moments stick out; the first is when Bily shoots one of 2pac’s soldiers (named Ghana) in the feet during a food distribution. That happened so suddenly I didn’t know exactly what was going on until it was mentioned.
The second moment revolves around the animosity between Billy and Franzo (one of 2pac’s boys). Bily keeps casually saying he is going to shoot Franzo in the feet to teach him some respect, and then kill him. One night they are all outside (looking like ghosts, I might add) when Franzo appears from nowhere ready to die: “So kill me here sweetheart. Bily I’m right here. Come and kill me right here. I’m ready to die, Bily.” I had my heart in my mouth during this scene because I thought for sure someone was going to die. What a life these people are living.
Oh there’s a third actually; they are off on a mission and one of the men is holding a weapon that he apparently is not supposed to. 2pac asks for him to hand it over and he refuses, which pisses Bily off. Cries off “Don’t shoot Bily” ring out, as though they already know Bily is crazy. 2pac does not evoke such a reaction and he manages to disarm the boy peacefully. 2pac plays a peacemaker role as the documentary goes on, but in the beginning I thought he was the monster. There was a scene in which he accuses a girl of stealing from one of his boys who was in an accident; the girl denies this accusation and looks so frightened. I was scared he was going to shoot her and so was she.
Cite Soleil is hell. An excerpt from this article which gives an insight into the struggle:
“One-story houses made of haphazardly assembled concrete blocks and metal roofs line dirt roads. There is no central water or sewer service, and only recently did the government install the electricity that lights homes a few hours a day.“
And this article:
Much of the slum is an open sewer…infant children bathe in water contaminated with sewage. The stench is unbearable, and this year’s rainy season has been particularly heavy, frequently flooding houses.
The whole slum was terrible to look at. They were constantly sweating; I wondered why at first, but as they are living in shacks in the middle of dirt, it is not farfetched to assume electricity is not a given. There was a scene in which they are at a funeral and the power goes off and so they go off in search of a generator. There is the constant threat of violence. The documentary shows bits and pieces of it but does not capture the true nature of the horror. In reading articles about it, I find that the entire area was actually barricaded during this period; they were literally at war. This is an entirely lawless land fully in the hands of these gangsters. Can you imagine the levels of despair? Imagine a young boy/girl with potential and dreams finding themselves stuck in Cite Soleil with no way out? Who knows what all these people, thugsters and otherwise, would have amounted to given the right support? These were once bright eyed babies who may have had a chance. Life is truly unfair. Sad that some babies are born in Beverly Hills and some in Cite Soleil. What a roll of dice!
It is morbidly fascinating (highly depressing) to me how poverty wears the same face at all times. Wealth presents itself differently across cultures/countries/regions but poverty is virtually identical all over; from the lack, the suffering, hopelessness, dirt and violence. This could easily have been the Liberia or Congo or Lagos or the favelas in Brazil. There is so much poverty, hopelessness and suffering in this world and it is depressing.
Another thing that drew me in is how ordinary the men look. I have seen men like that walking down the streets of Lagos, in my neighbourhood, my house even. They could literally be part of the choir/ushers in my church. We typically expect evil to have two heads and six eyes but more often than not, it just looks like us. Evil is usually a product of its environment and all of these people’s lives could have been different if they were just born into different circumstances. They could have been something if not for the hand life dealt them.
As the documentary is from the point of view of the gangsters the viewer ends up sympathising with them rather than focusing on the evil they mete out and the community they terrorise. This is one thing I find so fascinating; even the most evil of people can elicit sympathy if presented in the right (wrong) way. It is dangerous of course to humanise/romanticise/empathise with the thugs as this erases the actual victims, but sometimes it is necessary to do so to realise that evil is not born but created. It is difficult not to feel sorry for them, given the wretchedness of their situation. These guys are on the streets in the world’s most dangerous slum. They have no food, no water, no shelter. They are all orphans (I would like to know what happened to their parents), they have no hope, and they are at the mercy of the government that’s using them as pawns. I’m sure if the documentary was about the horrors faced by the residents of cite Soleil under the hands of the Chimeres I would not be at all sympathetic to the thugsters and gangsters. I would instead be calling for their heads. Funny how that works.
I don’t think the filmmakers started out with the intention of presenting the gangsters in a good light, but that is most likely the only way they would have been allowed into the slums. They have such exclusive access to Cite Soleil; It was like watching a behind the scenes footage of what we see on the news. An example is the surrender of arms- we see things like that on the news but never see what happens beforehand. It was interesting to come across a picture of Bily in this article, knowing the discussions that went on before.
We see everything from the men playing with their children, expressing their fears of death, mourning the loss of a comrade, we even see them showering. None of this is possible without full co-operation of the Chiméres. No way two outsiders simply walk into the slum and start filming. I was quite intrigued by the fact that this was filmed in the midst of such chaos-shootings, threats, death, even a revolution in which the president was forced to flee into exile. Perhaps it’s true what the internet says: the cameraman never dies.
It also gives an inside look to how these politicians use thugs as weapons to disrupt things. They are servants of Aristide, and they provide the muscle for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s governing party, Lavalas. Aristide denies knowing these thugs but it is obvious they know each other. They all talk about him incessantly and there are so many references to Aristide. 2pac was even driving a car that has a note in it showing it was property of the government. They have been to Aristide’s house to provide protection. One of the gangsters stated “last night we were at President Aristide’s house providing security for him…” Bily et al mention more than once how they are basically trapped in this life because if they stop working for Aristide he will have them killed. It is so obvious they are being funded by someone or somehow. 2pac mentioned once that he spent $800 on a gun, a fact that shocked me given that they are living in literal dirt.
This also made me think about the thugs in Lagos, how they show up to cause harm and chaos, and the politicians who is funding them. Corruption is rife, just as much as poverty. Even in the barest, most wretched lands, there are politicians who are living fat on the land and exploiting the poor. In Nigeria, it’s the same story. These touts are recruited to cause havoc and chaos. The touts back home appear so scary and it is inconceivable that I’ll have any sympathy for them; this may be the same way the Haitians looks at 2pac and Bily.
It is interesting seeing them getting ready for a “mission”, for lack of a better term. It’s like girls dressing up for a night out, just less chaotic. They don’t even appear that nervous; there are smiles and laughter and it seems like just another day in the office for them.
I cannot write this post without mentioning Lele. Lele Lele Lele, real name Éleonore Senlis. Lele is a French aid worker, and from the moment she showed up on the screen I thought uh-oh, what’s going on here? Long story short she did not do much refugee work and most of the aid she offered was to the brothers. It is said that Lele is the one who introduced the film-makers to the brothers. When the government is overturned and the coup leaders announce war on the Chimeres, it is Lele who organises the peace talks. Who is this woman and how did she get all these contacts? Is it really simply from being a (White) aid worker in Haiti? Bily in particular turns to Lele for help now and then; when he gets into an accident, and when he shoots one of his boys. Slowly but surely it appears Bily develops feelings for her. “Lele my girl….friend. Not girl just friend”. Even 2pac admits that Bily really likes Lele. Imagine my shock when a scene rolls around and Lele is in bed with 2pac. I beg your entire pardon! I was actually in denial and thought maybe it was another White woman and I was wondering where she came from.
I was not surprised to see that the brothers developed feelings for Lele; I was not even surprised to see that Lele developed a soft spot for them. However I was stunned to see that she actually pursued a romantic relationship with them. That was wild. She ought to be embarrassed. I cannot see what “aid” she was rendering really. That was so bizarre. Power is attractive, regardless of the form it appears in. Even in the dirty, bare ghetto, power is still power. But still….
I don’t know if there’s any point of a spoiler alert but I’ll go ahead and put that here. SPOILER: I was pleased when 2pac managed to leave Haiti. I could feel his hopelessness. The scene where he says goodbye to his daughter is so haunting- the overall cinematography is great, especially in the night scenes when the infrared (I think that’s what it is) makes them look like ghosts. What I did not understand however, is why 2pac chose to return to Haiti barely two months after. Of course he was promptly gunned down and killed by a rival. What a waste. His brother Bily also disappeared and is suspected to have met the same fate. They truly became the Ghosts of Cite Soleil. Their poor children are left fatherless. The cycle is never ending.
The whole thing was filmed in 2004 for what must be only a few months and yet so much happens. I don’t really get the full picture and I think some parts must have been left out. The relationship between the brothers is difficult to understand. In the beginning 2pac starts off talking about how he loves his little brother; seemingly out of nowhere he is okay with his soldier shooting the same brother if necessary, and yet at the end when Bily is arrested 2pac is distraught. It’s odd and I felt I missed something; I very well could have given that I watched this in the middle of the night instead of sleeping. There are moments of tenderness between the two, but then there are moments of distrust in which each one thinks the other is going to kill him. I guess this is just a side effect of living in Cite Soleil; one always has to watch one’s back even with family. There is also mention of Bily and vodou priests but that is not explored in full. So much is missing. I need more.
The more you kill the shorter your life becomes.
I would actually say Bily made a more lasting impression on me. He always seemed stressed when talking. Now that I know his age I cannot stop thinking about it. I was impressed by Bily’s “peace call” to Guy Phillipe in which he stated his case boldly and clearly. The call was organised by Lele and was meant for the gangsters to surrender or whatever. Bily starts out saying he wants peace and then confidently launces into a speech about how the government must not pretend to also want peace only to disarm the thugs and then massacre the people. Guy hung up and Bily shrugs (“Bravo Bily!”, exclaims 2pac who is looking on proudly) but that left an impression on me.
Throughout the film I thought they were speaking French and English, and as I always am with fully bilingual people I was impressed with how easily they flitted between the two. It was not until afterwards that the internet told me that it was actually Haitian Creole not French. That explains why they were speaking English with Frenchwoman Lele.
One final interesting point to mention is the lack of participation from any of the local women. They are all in the background of the scenes but they are not brought into the story. A few of the men, including the brothers, have children (just realising now that it’s all daughters) so there must be wives/girlfriends but we are never introduced to them. Lele is the only woman who we actually hear from. I guess it shouldn’t be too shocking seeing as the story is following the gangsters and there are no female gangsters.
All in all, I really enjoyed this documentary and I am happy it was made. I would happily watch another hour of unseen footage. As always, I am in awe of people who create things like this- imagine getting an idea and actually going through with it regardless of the risks? Couldn’t be me. One day I hope to be able to create something from scratch and build it up to fruition