The opening crawl to Asger Leth's documentary Ghosts Of Cité Soleil reminds viewers that Haiti was part of the New World "discovered" by Christopher Columbus, that it's only a two-hour flight from Miami, and that the Port-Au-Prince slum dubbed Cité Soleil is, according to the U.N., "the most dangerous place on Earth." Leth may seem to be coming on a little strong, playing up Haiti's violence and proximity to the U.S., but he clearly intends Ghosts Of Cité Soleil to be pitched at a hysterical peak. The movie follows two brothers, 2Pac and Bily: the former is a ganglord who wants to be a rapper, and the latter is an armed supporter of Haitian president Jean-Baptiste Aristide. The film opens shortly before Aristide is deposed, and it catches the chaos of a country in bloody transition. Leth also captures the drama that arises when 2Pac and Bily share the affections of a French aid worker named Lele.
Leth even shoots the moment when Lele walks up to Bily on the street, hugs him, and tells him that 2Pac is her man now. It's one of a handful of scenes in Ghosts Of Cité Soleil that raise questions about the movie's legitimacy. Not that Leth staged anything, but given that he's making a movie about people who take comfort in the self-aggrandizing mythology of hip-hop culture, it's highly likely that his subjects are elevating their macho posturing because of his camera's presence. Either way, Leth never confronts the brothers about the morality of their guns-and-adultery lifestyle. Instead, he crafts the film with the burnished look and restless style of an edgy contemporary action movie, turning thugs into legends.
In doing so, Leth has made something undeniably exciting. Ghosts Of Cité Soleil moves restlessly from parties to crime scenes (and parties about to become crime scenes), and periodically, he abandons his principal characters to cut in file footage and news reports about what's happening with Aristide's removal and the subsequent U.S. occupation. That sense of scope is necessary to establishing the stakes for 2Pac and Billy and their scant couple of blocks of turf. The new provisional government promises an end to the violence in the streets if the gangs will give up their guns, while the gangs know that they keep the guns because they're usually fighting the government. If nothing else, Leth shows how wrung-out and careless everyone gets amid constant bloodshed. "We don't need peace," one says. "We need school for our kids. Food. Sleep."