Another year, another outstanding documentary that forces us to think about the world in a new way. It seems we can’t make up anything that is more compelling than real life. Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, to be screened on BBC Four on Monday, is a devastating indictment of the so-called war on drugs, which the American director claims has torn his country apart.
Jarecki’s film, like his previous work Why We Fight, won the Grand Jury prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It is a slow-burning polemic that marshals facts and heart-rending stories to wage its own war against a broken policy. Not only has the war on drugs been completely ineffective, says Jarecki, but it has spawned injustice and helped support an industrial system that has nothing but its own relentless momentum to commend it.
Unlike Michael Moore, Jarecki builds his argument with stealth. Where Moore is clownish and gimmicky, Jarecki is quietly determined to twist opponents into submission with cool observation. He relies on the small dramas of little people to build his picture, and then frames it with a grander context. “It’s the connecting of dots,” he tells me over coffee in a central London hotel. “Many of these facts are known. But they are concealed in broad daylight.” He is brushing the dust off existing material that has gone overlooked, he says. “And then I look for a shining constellation among those elements.”
Some of the stars in his constellation are improbably chosen. For every grieving parent who laments a child lost to the drugs war, there is a prison warden, a retired judge or a police officer who holds similar grudges against a system that is palpably under distress.
I ask him what his political opponents make of his film. “I’m no dummy,” he says. “I deliberately look for people who I find hard to dismiss. My standards for the film are high: does this person violate some expectations of central casting? How do they see the world, and how easy is it to impeach their view of it? They are very tough people to beat. The drugs war has been such a failure that after 40 years, a trillion dollars and 45m arrests, we have nothing to show for it. Drugs are cheaper, purer, more available than ever before. What could you possibly say in its defence?”
Although the individual dramas in Jarecki’s film are compelling in their own right, the film-maker’s greater skill lies in weaving them into a coherent and systematic critique. (Documentary-making is evidently in the genes: Eugene’s brother Andrew made the much-lauded Capturing the Friedmans.) “It’s a trap,” he confesses. “You need the individual stories to inspire the public. But I am not so interested in those individuals as much as in the system that employs them, promotes them, whatever it is doing to them.
“I look at systems of corruption and abuse that pain me out of a sense of injustice. That often starts as an outraged reaction against the parent aggressor. But there is any number of available bad guys. If you get over-captivated by the particular, you lose sight of the universal. Primo Levi said that monsters were too few in number to be truly dangerous; the real danger is in everyday people who acquiesce without asking questions.”
Some of the sharpest questions on this particular topic have already been asked by David Simon, creator of HBO TV drama The Wire, the fictional complement to Jarecki’s film, who is widely quoted in the documentary. His views on the war on drugs share the bleakness of Greek tragedy, I say. “David Simon is a genius,” Jarecki says. “I treasure him. Where I differ from David is that I have preserved a level of naivety that he doesn’t have. I fall into a camp that is a bit more optimistic. Three laws have been changed [over the legalisation of drugs] in the past year alone. That’s amazing.”
Simon describes what is happening in the US as like a “Holocaust in slow motion”. “I don’t take the holocaust analogy lightly,” says Jarecki. “But throughout history sections of society have turned on defenceless people. In Germany they ratcheted that up, against my own people. But we are supposed to learn from history. The mantra was ‘Never again’. What we are seeing is the victimisation of minorities for concocted reasons, which ultimately leads to mass despair.”
The House I Live In (named after Abel Meeropol’s anti-racist song from the 1940s) lays bare the racial motives that were behind the anti-drugs initiatives of the 19th century. “The biggest users of opium in the 1800s were middle-aged white women, largely in the south. But we made opium illegal in California, where the Chinese [users] were.” Similar associations were made between marijuana and Mexicans, and crack cocaine and African- Americans. Jarecki rattles off more facts: today black people constitute 14 per cent of the US population, 14 per cent of its drug users, 14 per cent of its crack cocaine users; but 90 per cent of those charged for crack cocaine offences, and 56 per cent of those incarcerated.
His machine-gun delivery belies the passion behind Jarecki’s argument. His sense of vocation is palpable: this is a documentary maker who wants to change the world. That sense of mission feels a little unfashionable these days. But there is no mistaking his zeal. He even has a missive for his hosts: “I am the messenger of a cautionary tale for Britain. It is deeply in your interests to stop reading our press releases. They are fraudulent. We have a deeply broken system that has blown up in our faces.”
‘Storyville: The House I Live In’ airs on January 14, BBC Four and is released on DVD on February 11
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden