It’s no secret that America’s War on Drugs hasn’t been much of a success, which makes Eugene Jarecki’s eye-opening documentary, The House I Live In, all the more impressive.
The rainy Sunday which played host to the final day of Sundance London saw film fans trudge blurry-eyed into this at 11 am, the earliest of screenings, with the compère almost apologising for the hard-hitting subject matter of the film that we were about to watch.
He needn’t have worried. While The House I Live In certainly doesn’t take a ‘softly softly’ approach in exploring the truly frightening statistics surrounding the effects of the War on Drugs, it is fascinating throughout. Jarecki (Why We Fight) begins with his own personal experience of drugs laws, taking a look at how they have affected the family of his African-American childhood nanny. This quickly expands into an investigation into the way in which ethnic minorities fall disproportionately victim to drug-related prosecutions – black citizens represent just 13% of the country’s crack cocaine users, for example, but account for 90% of those arrested for it.
Visiting America’s ghettos, interviewing dealers and examining the cyclical nature of drug culture is all good stuff, but it’s nothing many viewers won’t have encountered before in documentaries from Louis Theroux and the like. Where The House I Live In really excels is in its quest to dig a little deeper. Not only do we hear from disillusioned cops and prison officers, but also activists and historians – all with very different motives fuelling their opinions, but with startlingly similar verdicts on the way in which the War on Drugs is failing.
One of the leading and most interesting voices in the film comes from the creator of The Wire, David Simon, who provides insight into the way in which the War on Drugs has undermined the policing system – with drug-related arrests escalating while murder charges have fallen due to officers’ reliance on being able to rack up impressive statistics. The footage of cops trawling through poorer communities, searching residents on the grounds of ‘probable cause’, and making arrests which will frequently lead to the incarceration of non-violent criminals is poignantly coupled with Simon’s commentary in some of the most affecting moments of this film.
Although the personal plights of various unlucky people are certainly touching, Jarecki is clearly keen to do far more than simply tug at the heartstrings. Perhaps the most disturbing comparisons are those he makes to Holocaust scenarios within the prisons system (in terms of their ability to segregate specific minority groups), as well as to the pre-Civil War slave trade. The film also addresses the finances generated by such mass-incarceration, and speculates that low-income communities are being treated as ‘unnecessary’ citizens, who are only valuable to society when inside a cell.
While the liberal leanings of Sundance might mean that The House I Live In sat a little more easily with festival audiences than it might elsewhere, there’s no reason why this documentary shouldn’t be watched, enjoyed and understood by more mainstream audiences. It is to the film’s credit that it avoids advocating legalisation, and instead opts for an argument packed full of objective thinking and straightforward analysis. The film recognises the progress which has already been made when it comes to changes in drugs legislation, but it doesn’t hesitate in reminding audiences that this isn’t nearly enough. When the end credits role we finally learn the significance of the film’s title, but the urgency with it calls for a change in existing policy becomes increasingly clear throughout. A very deserving winner of the 2012 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary, and a film which one can only hope will be seen by decision-makers around the world.