THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

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Eugene Jackeri’s ‘The House I Live In’ (2013) is a comprehensive meditation on the failures of America’s war on drugs. Filmed over 5 years across 25 states, the film’s scope is expansive. It interrogates every aspect of a destructive, amoral and essentially ineffective system. Jackeri traces the origins of the war on drugs, from its conception under Nixon and its escalation under Reagan, discerning how political rhetoric morphed a public health issue into a national criminal justice imperative. He exposes the war’s casualties, revealing the system as a human rights crisis where minority groups and the poor are fed into a vicious cycle of mass incarceration. Finally, ‘The House I Live In’ examines ‘the prison industrial complex’, the sinister machinery that sustains this endless war waged against America’s own people. The war on drugs has failed. That much this documentary makes starkly clear. But ‘The House I Live In’ achieves more than this. It sparks a consideration of the war on drugs as a hideous reflection of a society where the primary value is capital, causing us to darkly question whether this war waged against ordinary people is in fact ‘a success only not on the publicly stated terms…’

Jackeri builds his case for the failure of the war on drugs upon the testimony of countless experts spanning numerous disciplines coupled with incredible access to individuals in the system itself. Testimony from; medical professors, addiction experts, historians, civil rights scholars, journalists, academics, prison guards, narcotics police and a federal judge (the list goes on), provides an aerial view of the socio-political landscape that shaped America’s destructive drug policy and its catastrophic effects. ‘The House I Live In’ is so powerful because it achieves a careful balance between the demands of holistically addressing such a large issue and keeping human stories at the film’s heart. Its origins are intensely personal. In Jackeri’s youth his family, who had fled persecution in Russia and Germany, employed an African-American housekeeper Nannie Jetter (Nannie is her real name). Their families grew close. Over the years Jackeri noticed poverty, joblessness, crime and suffering in Nannie Jetter’s family. When he asked her why she thought this was, her surprisingly simple answer of ‘drugs’ provided the starting point for Jackeri’s film. ‘The House I Live In’ is shaped by Nannie Jetter’s experiences framing the film as a personal journey of discovery.

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Nannie Jetter watching Obama’s inauguration

Keeping Nannie Jetter at the film’s core foregrounds how expertly Jackeri allows real people to make his arguments. A particularly moving instance is the case of Anthony Johnson, a non-violent 24 year old arrested for drug trafficking and facing a potential 5-40 year sentence. He is one of many in this film who fall victim to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It is through Anthony’s situation that we are able to see how mass incarceration in minority communities forms a ‘vicious cycle [that] spans generations.’ The statistic that ‘2.7 million children in the US have a parent behind bars, these children are more likely to be incarcerated during their lifetime than other children’ is made tragically real by our meeting Anthony’s baby daughter who he has never met, and later Anthony’s estranged father Dennis Whidbee.  Dennis was also consumed by the trade, spending much of Anthony’s childhood selling drugs out of public housing to support his own addiction. In a moment of striking vulnerability Dennis reflects on his struggles with fatherhood. Speaking directly to camera, his frustration and pain is palpable as he says ‘ I didn’t know how to really be their Dad…I knew I was supposed to…I didn’t have one…I didn’t know how to stop doing what I was doing to be their Dad.’ Moments like those we spend with Anthony’s family movingly locate the human cost of America’s drug policy.

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Anthony’s daughter

Not only is The House I Live In’ incredibly informative, it is beautifully made. The cinematography is captivating, often expressing wordlessly the documentary’s central concerns. In one of the film’s most memorable shots the camera slowly zooms in on an inmates face pressed against the glass of small rectangular window. His face is the only sign of life in a silent sea of white locked cell doors. It is a powerful portrait of isolation. Describing this shot Jackeri mentions ‘you can feel the camera man’s hand trembling.’ The way shots like this are interwoven with interview and archival footage, alongside a carefully curated soundtrack including the likes of Bill Withers and Lou Rawls, makes the film’s form masterful.

‘The House I Live In’ primarily addresses the disproportionate effect of the war on drugs on black Americans. It identifies; how drug laws from their very conception are rooted in the threat of Otherness, how structural impediments perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration, and how policing both targets and destroys minority communities. At the film’s coda however, David Simon (Journalist and creator of The Wire) introduces a chilling hypothesis. What if the war on drugs is the true expression of our capitalist society? Where the poor, without the protection of the minimum wage, unions, or access to proper housing are no longer seen as legitimate citizens. What if drug policy provides a convenient and deliberate means to ‘get rid off the bottom 15% of the country’ and ‘make money off locking them up?’ Simon’s words, ‘at what point don’t we say kill the poor?’ made me consider in a new light just how pressing this film still feels 5 years after its release. The current opioid crisis predominantly effecting poor white Americans seems to prove Simon’s claim that ‘in the end capitalism is pretty colour blind.’ But looking beyond drugs to the socio-political climate in both the US and here in the UK, this film has given me pause to think about what kind of house it is that we live in.

 

Where can you find it?

Amazon (You can get a free 7 day Sundance subscription which includes this film)

Also YouTube and Google Play for a few $$

 

Want more on this topic?

If you interested in mass incarceration/prison reform I would also encourage you to watch:

Time: The Kalif Browder Story (4 part series)

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The Central Park Five

Into the Abyss

 

 

THE SQUARE

the people demand the fall of the regime.pngIn 2011 thousands of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to call for the removal of their president Hosni Mubarak. Vowing to remain in the square until their demands were met, the revolutionaries called for freedom from a regime that for 30 years had imposed state of emergency law under which human rights were routinely violated.

From Mubarak’s fall from power, the introduction of a military fascist regime and its replacement by a religious equivalent, The Square (2013) documents Egypt’s struggle to redefine itself as the Egyptian people return again and again to Tahrir square to demand justice and freedom from oppression. 

Through Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim‘s verite style, the viewers is transported to Tahrir Square, seeing through the eyes of the six revolutionaries – sharing in the exhilaration of revolutionary change, and the fear and pain of violent suppression. 

A camera, Noujaim proves is a tool of revolution – footage of atrocities inflicted by the state, like those this film captures, reaching an international audience through social media were instrumental in Mubarak’s removal. The Square itself is a testament to the power of the people by being the first crowd-funded film to be nominated for an Oscar.

Catch it on Netflix now

THE WOLFPACK

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Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack (2015) follows the extraordinary lives of six brothers, the Angulo’s, whose childhoods were spent almost entirely confined within a New York apartment. Their eventual escape would come from an unexpected source – Hollywood.

Brothers Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krisna and Jagadesh are the product of a Peruvian father (Oscar Angulo) and American mother (Susanne Angulo) who, after meeting on the trail of Machu Picchu, subsequently settled in New York with hopes of emigrating to Scandinavia.

On moving to New York, Oscar, who was heavily influenced by the teachings of Hare Krishna, was struck by the chaotic nature of the modern capitalist city he saw around him and fearing the dangers of socialisation for his children kept them for sometimes years at a time in their small apartment.

Their father’s influence on the boys is strikingly visual, they are a product of his desire to make his ‘own race’, a concept he partly enforced through assigning all of the children Sanskrit names. They dress in matching clothes and most strikingly all have long waist length dark hair. This documentary captures on film the brother’s survival, through film.

For many, film provides a temporary escape from reality, for the Angulos it functioned as much more. Hollywood movies not only punctured the insular world of their apartment but also allowed the boys to imagine new realities. As Mukunda says ‘movies opened up another world’. Enamoured by the worlds they find the brothers meticulously transcribe and create ingenious costume to enact Hollywood classics like ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’

Film would also foster literal escape as The Wolfpack sees the brothers begin to explore the city using Hollywood’s tropes as a blueprint to navigate the world beyond. It was on one such trip into New York that filmmaker Crystal Moselle, struck by their unusual appearance, noticed the brothers and formed an unlikely friendship. This relationship would produce 500 hours of film over five years and go on to secure the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015.

Despite the brother’s creativity, resilience and humour moments of considerable shade colour Moselle’s study. She captures the oppressive claustrophobia of the apartment and the ever-present spectre of an abusive and authoritarian father haunts many of the interviews. Within the apartment powerful images of loneliness and isolation are abundant, lit often by the light of the glaring tv.

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It is testament to Moselle’s relationship with the Angulos that she captures so many moments of authentic vulnerability and naivety. The Wolfpack is characterised by the rare innocence that can be found in so many scenes, like for example a ‘Dark Knight’ Batman costume made from cereal boxes or the brother’s first visit to the beach dressed in the style of ‘Reservoir Dogs’. In a subject with such potential for darkness, Moselle finds the light – creativity, brotherhood and hope.

Watch the trailer here: 

Where can you find it?

The Wolfpack is available On Demand through Sky and NowTV and it is available to rent on Amazon, YouTube and Google for a couple of ££.