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Inside "Ghosts of Cite Soleil"

TONY COX, host:

From the streets of Iraq to a very different kind of war in Haiti. There you'll find one of the world's largest and deadliest slums, Cite Soleil. The U.N. once dubbed that the most dangerous place on Earth. Gang violence erupted there in 2004 after the government of then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown.

Danish filmmaker Asger Leth traveled to the notorious slum right before Aristide's ouster, and his latest film, "Ghosts of Cite Soleil," follows two rival gang leaders, who also happened to be blood brothers.

Asger, welcome to the show.

Mr. ASGER LETH (Director, "Ghosts of Cite Soleil"): Thank you very much.

COX: Let's begin with this. The title of the film is "Ghosts of Cite Soleil." Why that? Why that?

Mr. LETH: Yeah. Well, you know, these gangs are called the Shamere(ph). You know, the gangs were like operating as almost as secret army, which is interesting. Now, you just talked about Iraq just before. I mean, the Shameres, it roughly translates as ghosts somehow.

And also while I wrote the title early on, I had a feeling that these guys in the gangs would probably end up dead, and that's actually also what happened. So in that sense, it's become a double title for me. I mean now, they are literally are ghosts, these guys, you know?

COX: The gangs have caused massive killings and devastation in the city. And there's a clip from the film that features a news report about the up-rise of Aristide's gang after he was overthrown. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film "Ghosts of Cite Soleil")

Unidentified Man #1: What started as a gang uprising in the city of Bonaive(ph) has now come under the control of men who used to be officers in Haiti's Army, an army Aristide disbanded in part because of its abysmal human rights record.

President JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE (Haiti): The killed more than 5,000 people, now they are back to kill more people.

COX: You know, you had what seemed to be unfettered access to the members of the Shamere gang that you followed, and in one scene in particular, someone, it may have been Billy, I'm not sure, turned the gun directly to the camera, and said, and this is a quote, "I should take your camera." Now, it - he didn't look to me like he was kidding, tell me about…

Mr. LETH: No.

COX: …the personal danger you experienced in making this film.

Mr. LETH: Well, that guy wasn't kidding. It wasn't Billy, though, it was just another local guy from the slum. I mean, that's the - I mean, it's a pretty intense place to be in, you know?

But I shot this film together with the Serbian filmmaker, Milos Loncarevic, and the Danish cinematographer Frederik Jacobi. And, luckily, Milos spent most of the time inside the slum, and that image in particular, that guy was threatening Milos, you know.

But Milos grew up during the war in Belgrade so he's just kind of used a little bit of everything. But, I mean, you know, inside the slum, we're all under the protection of the gang somehow because we made a, you know, we asked them if they wanted to tell the story and they wanted to tell the story.

So once we agreed on tell the story so once we agreed on that, we were kind of under their protection. So that was pretty cool most of the time, you know, going in and out of the slum was really difficult and traveling around in Port au Prince at this time was very dangerous because the gates have barricades up all over the streets, and I had to also go up to the front line to the rebels, you know, the rebel forces that were coming to the camp, from the north. So all that stuff was really hairy.

COX: But there were rival gangs. In fact, that involved both the two primary players, and I don't mean that as actors in the film. The brothers, Billy and Tupac, they were rival gang members at one point, thought about killing each other, did they not?

Mr. LETH: Oh yeah. I mean, you know, while Aristide was still there, in some weird way, these guys stuck together, and it was safer for us. But once Aristide, you know, he was ousted The gangs inside the Cite Soleil started fighting each other and it became really dangerous for us. So that there, you're right, you know, that's a very unhealthy atmosphere to be in

COX: Now, Tupac used to be a supporter of Aristide then he changed sides. What happened to cause that?

Mr. LETH: For him personally, you know, he was, he had a falling out with Aristide and the government over some money and some guns and then he was thrown to jail. And while he was in jail, he started doing rap music against Aristide.

So when he came out of prison, you know, his brother had taken over in his absence and his brother was much more politically motivated. He really believed in Aristide. And Tupac, of course, you know, had lost his illusions so they had - yeah, they were not exactly seeing things the same way.

COX: Well, you know, Billy and Tupac both loved to rap, and their talents would carry them and hope that their talents would carry them out of the country. What role - talk about that. What role did hip-hop music play in their lives because Tupac, in particular, seemed to want his own music career as much as he wanted peace for his country?

Mr. LETH: Yeah. I don't know if those two things inseparable because they're not like celebrity seekers in a sense and, you know, from the States. I mean, they rap because they have a reason to rap, you know? It's kind of like going back to the core of hip-hop, you know?

These guys are on the street in the world's most dangerous slum. They have no food, no water, no shelter. They're orphans, all of them, you know, they have no hope, and the government that's using them. So, I mean, the only way to express yourself is, you know, through hip-hop. It feels extremely raw and very honest and it has - it's the only way of expressing themselves, you know, except from carrying a gun, you know, which is horrible.

COX: Well, speaking of guns, as a matter of fact, now, there's another scene in the film where, a little more peaceful that scene is, where you show gangsters actually turning in their weapons to authorities.

Mr. LETH: Yeah.

COX: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of film "Ghosts of Cite Soleil")

Unidentified Man #1: The normally off-limits armed slum of Cite Soleil today swarmed with international military personnel and foreign press. Notorious gang leaders Dred Wilmer, Billy Labanye, Amaral and Tupac handed over their weapons to the national police in a crowded ceremony at the port.

COX: Now what they said, once their guns were gone, I think this was Tupac in your documentary, that he was without power, that he was naked.

Mr. LETH: Yeah.

COX: You remember?

Mr. LETH: Yeah. Power is a gun on Haiti, Power is a gun.

COX: He's right, you know, in some ways, and it's really sad. I mean, of course, they didn't turn over, I mean, they pretended to turn over their guns because they knew that that was a fact. That if they turned over all their guns, they would get killed.

So they handed over most of their old weapons and kept some of the serious stuff, you know? And, you know, even that was enough. I mean, you know, most of those guys are dead today and then, you know, it's kind of proven, you know, that power is a gun in Haiti, and it's horrible.

These gangs in Cite Soleil that have so many guns, it's crazy. And even today, I know it's getting worse. They have grenade launchers, I think, and some of laser-guided rifles and sniper stuff, you know? They're heavily armed.

COX: Well, you know, we have about a little over a minute left. I want to hit this other area because it also struck me in watching the documentary, which was - I was engrossed in it. One of the things that struck me though was that the role or really the lack of a role played by black women in Cite Soleil. We rarely heard from them. Why was that?

Mr. LETH: Yeah, you know, that's really weird, you know, it's like the women in the background. It's such a macho universe. I do think, though, that they mean a lot to these guys. I mean, I think it's, I mean, like Billy had a wife - actually, I think he had more than one, you know?

COX: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LETH: And he had kids, but they want them to stay out of focus. They want them to stay at home. They don't want them to get close to the violence and all that stuff, and so they kind of, you know, we're doing the film, they keep them in the background. But at the same time, there was a girl in the part, in the gang, you know, a young girl, 16, carrying a gun also in the film. So they are there, you know, and, you know, they're - I mean, yeah. It's a macho universe, and they kind to keep the women inside the house.

COX: And everybody died, right?

Mr. LETH: Yeah. Everybody died.

COX: Asger, thank you so much for coming in. Asger Leth is director of the documentary "Ghosts of Cite Soleil." He spoke with us from NPR's New York studios.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our Podcast, visit npr.org/newsandsnotes. To join the conversation, visit our blog, newsandviews. Just check out the link at the top of our Web page.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, I sit down with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.