You come out of 'Ghosts of Cité Soleil' wondering how the filmmakers lived to tell the tale. Taking place in the slums of Cité Soleil in Haiti, the documentary offers a rare glimpse into the tumultuous time in 2004 when gangs fought with one another, and opponents of Haiti's then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for control of the streets.
The story follows brothers Bily and 2Pac, two gang leaders (Chimeres) who are trying to maintain their power and respect amid the fighting on the streets. The film's co-director and cinematographer, Milos Loncarevic, got remarkable access to the violent and feared gang leaders.
We catch a glimpse into their private thoughts and aspirations with scenes of them speaking directly to the camera. The documentary is sometimes shockingly intimate and, coupled with the compelling story, forces you to keep reminding yourself that it is actually real.
Bily has high hopes for Haiti. He is the more political of the brothers, in his support of Aristide and his willingness to fight for him to the end. 2Pac expresses himself through rap, and for him music is a means of escape from his life of violence and hardship.
Lele is a French relief worker, who becomes embroiled in the world of the brothers, at first supplying them with medical assistance, then becoming 2Pac's lover. Over the course of the documentary she goes from condemning the violence that rules their lives to urging 2Pac to hold onto his guns when a new government tries to disarm the Chimeres. She remains a maddeningly mysterious character, as we struggle to understand the turnaround in her opinions.
Director Asger Leth seems to have been similarly seduced by the brothers. Since most of the documentary centres around their words and actions; it gives the story a distinctly one-sided feel and an uncomfortable lack of objectivity. However, it makes for fascinating viewing, as we become acquainted with their characters, a potent mix of vulnerability, ambition and ruthless brutality.
There are news clips of violence in Haiti and interviews with anti-Aristide protesters which give the Haitian situation a bit of context, but the main focus of the film is the two brothers.
The style of the film, incorporating quickly edited sequences, overexposed lighting and shaky camera shots, brings to life the story that is unfolding. The sense of lawlessness and brutality that pervades 'Ghosts of Cité Soleil' gives it a thrilling edge, but the lack of critical distance from this outlaw lifestyle lets the documentary down.