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Jailhouse Doc

Eugene Jarecki tackles the war on drugs

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Eugene Jarecki’s film is rumored to be a contender for the Best Documentary Academy Award.

The House I Live In

Directed by Eugene Jarecki

AT MICA’s Brown Center Dec. 13, 7 P.M.

To say that documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki has the Midas touch would be an understatement. His first feature, The Opponent (2000), about a battered woman who learns boxing to defend herself from an abusive boyfriend, premiered at the AFI Film Festival. The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002)—co-written by the late Christopher Hitchens, detailing the war crimes of Secretary of State Kissinger during the Vietnam War—was also a festival favorite. Last year’s Reagan, a straight-up bio-doc of the titular actor-turned-leader of the free world, won an Emmy. Jarecki has taken two grand jury prizes at Sundance: for 2005’s Why We Fight, an indictment of the U.S. military industrial complex; and for his most recent work, The House I Live In, which examines the war on drugs in the U.S. and is rumored to be on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary. City Paper caught up with Jarecki after he returned from a weekend screening at Rikers Island. (Joe Tropea)

City Paper: You choose such massive topics, like militarism or the war on drugs, for your films. Why is that?

Eugene Jarecki: After I made Trials of Henry Kissinger, I became concerned that we all too often personalize our political concerns in this society and avoid the 800-pound gorillas, which are always about systems of power. We blame the individual. We say what a bad guy Henry Kissinger is or what uniquely savage individuals Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney are when, in fact, it is our system that hires and promotes such people. I want to get at what is the systemic nature of the roots of that problem. You have to ask yourself, “Why does a democracy hire such people?” And with the war on drugs, why does a democracy elect to conduct itself in such a grotesquely anti-democratic way, as to become the world’s largest jailer? It’s important to put a human face to any situation, but to overly particularize it is to forget that it’s ultimately systemic in nature and the solutions to it have to be systemic in nature as well.

CP: What did you expect to learn about the drug war before you started filming?

EJ: I expected to see a system that would make me uncomfortable. A system of industrialized, for-profit mass incarceration should make anyone concerned with democracy uncomfortable. What I didn’t expect was the mass scale of it. [It] is shocking. The sentences given to nonviolent people are shocking. The explosion of the incarceration of the nonviolent over the last 40 years is shocking, but the awesome part came in my discovery of real human majesty within the system, not just of those incarcerated. There’s also a tremendous amount of human majesty among those who work in the system—from the cops who tell me that the system is broken and that they’re arresting the same people week in and week out and it’s not going anywhere, or the judges who tell me that their hands are tied and that the drug laws have created mandatory minimums that have stripped them of their discretion at the hands of tough-on-crime greedy politicians who just want to get elected by sounding tough. So there was real human majesty in seeing people employed by the system willing to go out on a limb to tell me, “This system needs repair and reform.” And that’s what I could never have anticipated.

CP: You just got back from screenings in London and Amsterdam. How was it received there?

EJ: Those countries have their own dangerous flirtations going on with the kind of out-of-control criminal justice practices that we’ve engaged in, but no one has engaged in a fraction of the kind of destruction we have. So the film and its imaging of America acts as a real cautionary tale for a country like England. In Britain they have something called stop-and-search, which is their equivalent of our stop-and-frisk. In New York State, for example, while black people are nine times as likely as white people to be stop-and-frisked, in England black people are also nine times as likely. The trends are frightening, and I hope that Britain and elsewhere will learn the lesson about what The Wire is about. It’s one of the most popular shows there and I hope they don’t just say, “Isn’t that amazing about America?” No, this is amazing about where they’re headed.

CP: What can everyday people do to have an impact on the drug war?

EJ: People have to find out in their area what’s going on to fight against the war on drugs and they have to join the fight. One way they can do that is to go to our website []. There’s a place where you can enter your ZIP code and it will tell [you] in [your] area what the crucial things are that are going on against the war against drugs and how [you] can join by adding [your] name to petitions or supporting local organizations or showing up at key events or contacting representatives to let them know [you] want them to be smart on crime and move away from being tough on crime.

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