In Cité Soleil, a region of Haiti's Port-Au-Prince, scrawny, filthy toddlers run naked in the trash-covered streets. The town resembles an enormous, nightmarish labyrinth, with grim, narrow stone corridors winding endlessly past citizens dazed by the strife of a merciless struggle for survival.
Danish director Asger Leth's Ghosts of Cité Soleil captures this traumatized locale with astounding, 16mm vibrancy. At the time of the film's creation, Haiti's president was the corrupt Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who hired local gangs to assist his police force in staving off the advances of violent political rebels. Somehow, Leth's camera team forged intimate relationships with two of the most notorious of these gangsters, a pair of brothers named Bily and 2Pac. We see these wildly dangerous men arguing with their "soldiers," sleeping with lovers in their homes, and even showering.
Heavily influenced by American rap (as evidenced by 2Pac's name) the brothers exhibit a crushing vulnerability beneath their macho swagger. When behind closed doors, 2Pac expresses fear of dying and a confused ambivalence toward his brother, whom he both loves and distrusts. Both men fall in love with a white, French relief worker named Lele. She chooses one and denies the other, in a real-life narrative twist befitting a soap opera.
Leth has been lambasted by some critics for glamorizing Cité Soleil's violence with snappy, music video-style editing and a hiphop soundtrack. But the music is an impassioned original score by Wyclef Jean, himself a Haitian native, and the editing sorts the footage into intimate character studies. Leth could have depicted the horrors of Cité Soleil from afar; instead, he chose, at the risk of his own life, to zoom in. He has not glamorized the lifestyles on display in Cité Soleil, he has humanized them.