"Rap music influenced them people deep over there; they will live by it and they will die by it. And it ain't no Hollywood movie, it's the truth." So says Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean, speaking on the street-level reality in Cite Soleil, a shantytown outside Port-au-Prince, and the central character of "Ghosts of Cite Soleil," a documentary on which Jean boasts both executive producer and original music credits. It's a statement that the film fails to follow through on the implications of, showing little curiosity as to what such an "influence" might imply for hardcore hip-hop music - a genre which, incidentally, has always borrowed freely from Hollywood - or for the residents of Cite Soleil, who daily see the most lunatic lyrical excesses made absolutely real.
The film focuses on brothers Bily and "Haitian 2Pac," slum gang leaders trying to preserve their neighborhood influence in the wake of 2004's military coup and the forced abdication of the presidency by Jean-Baptiste Aristade, who was, according to the brothers' claims, their employer and benefactor. The pervasive influence of American hip-hop culture is everywhere - Haitian 2Pac has a soldier named "50 Cent," his underlings wear Sean John gear, and when pressed into a tight spot he'll express his personal plight through the title of one of his namesake's albums: "It's me against the world." Of the hip-hop martyrs, Biggie and Big L are the clearly superior lyricists, but it's Tupac Shakur, with his beyond-the-grave prolificacy and messianic "Follow me"s, who has become the icon, spraypainted on walls in Sofiatown and aboriginal Australia.
Director Asger Leth-son of Danish filmmaker and former Consul to Haiti, Jorgen Leth - and cinematographer Milos Loncarevic mainly corroborate aspiring rap star Haitian 2Pac's hip-hop-tinted worldview, filtering the epic squalor of Cite Soleil through the visual vernacular of music videos: blown-out high-contrast photography, julienne'd editing, and pervasive slow-motion. At times their vision of the slums resembles nothing so much as the oeuvre of rap video maven Hype Williams (the Jamaican interludes in "Belly," for example). One scene, documenting a wake for one of 2Pac's fallen soldiers, only needs a few cutaways to Akon to be ready for MTV consumption.
The almost complete eschewal of social and political contextualization aside, there are occasions when the film comes through on the level of pure visceral experience - as a portrait of jumbled, sordid life in the lower depths wracked by cataracts of senseless violence, a human hell to recall Stephen Crane's slum stories. Leth and Loncarevic are keenly aware of the unique opportunity before them - shooting a revolution! - and seem frantic to capture everything, with some extraordinary stuff resulting: a squalling newborn carried off by the ankles, forceps clamped on its umbilical cord; a routine dispensing of foodstuffs that, in a muddle of bluff and bullshit, descends straightaway into violent anarchy. Such inspired interludes only increase the disappointment when Leth decides to fasten 2Pac's story onto the familiar "race-against-time-to-escape-the-ghetto" narrative arc. It may be that stories of slum life too often end the same way, but that doesn't mean they should feel so familiar.
Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.