Speaking to Eugene Jarecki is like having a web of thoughts coming at you a mile a minute. Considering the levels of analysis in his films like Why We Fight and his most recent documentary, The House I Live In, about the War on Drugs (both Grand Jury Prize winners at the Sundance Film Festival), it should come as no surprise. When Jareki wants to express an idea, he wants to consider all the influences, the historical context, the social consequences, the economic impact, etc.
Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, the documentary filmmaker notes his decision to insert himself in The House I Live In was not an easy one to make, but it felt right in order to illuminate how this failed policy on drugs affects everyone in many ways. "[It was] a sensitive and difficult choice because here I am, a pudgy white guy who's making a movie about largely black folks, and people who are the Other, and I've spent a lot of time watching and thinking about how documentaries are made to know that the choices that are often made by white people and the presentation of non-white people are very often freighted by all kinds of prejudices and -isms, and I wanted to avoid as much of that as I possibly could and be as careful as I could in the presentation of stories that afflict other people."
The film opens with images of him as a child of Jewish parents who arrived in America fleeing persecution in Europe and Russia. "I also have a legacy of suffering that goes back to Nazi Germany and to czarist Russia, and that conditions me as an observer to this phenomenon of the Drug War in America to understand that over time society turns on groups to scapegoat them and blame them for society's ills."
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Jarecki is on his way to making a bold statement, but when he allows Historian Richard Lawrence Miller to lay out the history of drugs and its correlation with persecution of select groups of people, it makes sense. Miller offers the example of Chinese immigrants who built railroads out to the West Coast in the late 19th century and were blamed for taking jobs from US citizens. Their opium habits correlated with the white man's own use of the substance at the time, a period when heroin was legal. It was made illegal in California, but not in other states. "It had nothing to do with opium itself," Miller says. "The concern was with the people associated with smoking opium, and that was the Chinese." Miller makes the same correlation with blacks and cocaine use and Mexicans and marijuana habits.
In the film, Miller's historical perspective is folded into several human interest stories, from a young drug dealer in the streets of New York to an Oklahoma inmate serving life without parole on drug charges, to Jarecki's very own nanny as a child, who lost her son (and Jarecki's childhod playmate) to AIDS after using dirty heroine needles. Jarecki hopes testimony from several experts on the War on Drugs coupled with these human interest stories will lead to solutions.
When you watch The House I Live In you are watching not just people but cogs running in circles in a machine stuck in a fixed position. Jarecki does not present good guys or bad guys, just a bunch of tired, frustrated people stuck in a system going nowhere. It turns out the war on drugs is a Rube Goldberg-type of contraption, and he captures that powerfully in his film. He even rode along with Broward Sheriff's Office deputies, among other police departments across the US, during drug busts. He says the access granted by police and their candor, especially those within the BSO, proved revealing. "They all share a certain level of a sigh, a certain regretful sigh of, once upon a time, wasn't it a little bit more full of meaning?" Jarecki says of the police. "They're as much the victims as somebody targeted by the war on drugs, and that was the discovery that I made by being blessed with such intimate access with police like those who welcomed me into their work in Broward County."
While the film may seem like a downer, Jarecki says there is a solution if the public demands it of its politicians. "The question is why we the public gulp down the Kool-Aid of tough-on-crime rhetoric that has been fed to us by politicians who simply use it to get in office and stay in office and to feather the nests of their patrons, so that those patrons will keep the jobs flowing to their district and the money keeps flowing to their campaign coffers. So long as we have that unholy alliance defining our system, then you can't blame anybody: the cop, the jailer, the prison industrial worker."
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos.