The House I Live In, After May

FILM, Film Festivals
New films by Eugene Jarecki and Olivier Assayas were among the highlights of the recent Autumn Events calendar.

Eugene Jarecki’s riveting documentary The House I Live In is a searching examination of the “War on Drugs” in the United States. It is also a reminder of the power of documentary film to create momentum behind a complicated issue—and the War on Drugs certainly is one. It’s the kind of issue that cannot easily be understood in headline news or political sound bites. Jarecki brings together the opinions and experiences of numerous actors in the War on Drugs, including some with a personal connection to him, condensing all of them into a concentrated 108 minutes. The sheer breadth of his subjects is illuminating. For where else could we see the private opinions of a judge who regularly sentences drug offenders juxtaposed with those of one of his defendants, or those of a seasoned prison guard with the mother of an inmate?

It is common knowledge that the United States has a very high rate of incarceration and that that rate of incarceration falls disproportionately heavily on minorities, and this documentary makes that point, but it also analyses in a cogent and thorough way the causes of that problem. Jarecki is able to coax insightful and often surprising comments from his subjects. Some of the most interesting comments come from the prison officer and the judge. Their livelihoods are in part dependant on the conveyor belt that sends drug offenders inside, but they both see significant problems with the system.

Judge Mark W. Bennett is a District Court Judge who regularly sentences offenders to hefty prison sentences for possession and supply. Yet he is deeply uncomfortable with many of the sentences he imposes. So why does he impose them? Mandatory sentencing. Legislating for ever longer minimum sentences is one way that politicians can be seen to address a problem of which their voters are all too aware. The problem is that mandatory sentencing limits judicial independence, removing the discretion a judge has to deal with a case on its merits. It’s like the “three strikes” law, but taken to an extreme. For example, in the United States, until recently the sentencing ratio between possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine was 100:1 (it has since been reduced to a modest 18:1). These mandatory sentences have resulted in people serving sentences for possession that are comparable to sentences for serious violent offending.

With its discussion of mandatory sentencing and the inequities of the War on Drugs, The House I Live In hints at an uncomfortable truth of the modern democratic system. In a hyper-sensitive media culture, politicians are tempted to engage in tough rhetoric at election time. They are afraid to engage publicly with more nuanced views, for fear that any moment of apparent weakness will be replayed endlessly to their detriment. This is the tyranny of the sound bite, which is displayed again and again in this film. Presidents from Nixon to Clinton are shown denouncing the scourge of drugs and promising swift action. Everyone cheers. The problem is that prison sentences are really the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, doing nothing to deal with addiction or the causes of drug abuse.

This film shows that the policy is failing. There are troubling scenes of police officers arresting people for possession in a well-known drug neighbourhood, like shooting fish in a barrel, and bizarre scenes at an expo for incarceration-related products, showing how a whole industry has grown up around the ballooning prison population. The House I Live In makes a strong case for a different approach. Smarter policies are required, and this film will help move the conversation in the right direction.

In Olivier Assayas’s After May (Something in the Air), Gilles is a middle class kid about to leave high school in early ’70s Paris. The riots of 1968 are recent history and change is in the air. Gilles aspires to be an artist, and he also dabbles in left wing activism. But dabbling has its limits—a security guard is injured by Gilles’s group and activism begins to take on a more serious aspect. Gilles and his friends take a trip to Italy—partly to let things cool down back home and partly for something to do. He is unsure about the revolutionary cause, and about the direction of his life in general. Assayas warmly captures the frustration of youth: the excitement of possibility is wryly punctuated by anti-climactic reality throughout.

Despite the intoxicating appeal of the cause, Gilles is not entirely convinced by the posturing of his peers. This film deftly satirises the inherent paradoxes of the left: for example the Trotskyites pay for an excellent lawyer to defend Gilles’s friend against allegations of violent activism. In a subtly amusing scene, a leftist filmmaker’s films are criticised by a comrade who asks: “shouldn’t revolutionary cinema employ revolutionary syntax?” The equally dense response is something along the lines that “revolutionary syntax” is exactly the problem, representing an individualistic bourgeois attitude. The earnestness of the characters is deliberately amusing for an audience with 40 years of hindsight.

The spirit of the summer of love pervades the film as well. Gilles’s friends make acid-drenched forays into Afghanistan and India. Again, the critique is subtle and gentle: Leslie, a free-spirited American girl who leads the journey to the east, is the daughter of the American ambassador in Rome. And when the summer of love is over, she calls on her father for a ticket back to the States and is gone before lunchtime. There is indeed a sense of seasons on the turn as the film approaches its conclusion: people move on, circumstances change. Yet the point is made in a gentle and poignant way, avoiding the heavy handedness that coming-of-age narratives, especially those set in the idealised ’60s and ’70s, can invite.

This is an attractively shot film with good performances from its young actors, especially Clément Métayer, who plays Gilles. He captures the diffidence of youth well—note the subtle differences in his demeanour when with his friends or with his father. After May is warm hearted yet poignant, with many charming details, such as the reverence for books of the young and earnest—the girlfriend Gilles loses, Laure, hands him a copy of Gregory Corso’s poems in the dappled sunlight of a beautiful summer forest. Books are a constant backdrop in this film, when someone handles one, the camera lingers a moment so we can see it and study its cover. The same reverence is attached to art—Gilles is a budding artist and we see many examples of his work, the work of his art classes and paintings in galleries.

Gilles laments at one point that he lives too much in his fantasies and doesn’t respond when opportunities present themselves. The central characters in this film are all seeking something, and finding themselves adrift. There is love, political activism, drugs, art—but perhaps all dreams are underwhelming in the realisation. After May is a clever, enjoyable tour through all these initiations.

‘The House I Live In’ and ‘After May’ screened as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Autumn Events programme in April.