Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki has produced many acclaimed documentaries, including “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” (2002) and “Why We Fight” (2005), a film about the military-industrial economy in the United States. Jarecki clearly isn’t afraid of tacking big issues. His latest documentary, “The House I Live In,” premiered at Sundance in January 2012 and won the the Grand Jury Prize. Jarecki has since been on the road all over the world promoting the film and spreading its message. We chatted with him about what it was like to produce and distribute the film.
CV: What first interested you in this topic?
EJ: I’ve been making movies about related subjects for a long time, and growing up in the wake of the Civil Rights movement as a young person, I had very deep friendships and family connections inside the black community in America. And it was clear to me that despite what the hopes might have been in the Civil Rights movement, I was growing up in a time where something new and different was blocking black progress in America, the progress of my friends, the progress of family. So I knew that the kind of opportunity and life chances that I was enjoying was not readily available to the people that I knew in the black community and, quite worse, it was really becoming a very difficult time for so many people who were constantly stumbling into one new and unprecedented obstacle after another, societally. And I wanted to know what was blocking black progress in that way, and where did that come from.
I think that, looking into it, the clearer it became that right after the Civil Rights movement, essentially the next day, the War on Drugs was launched. And that picked up where the Civil Rights movement left off. Michelle Alexander has called it ‘the new Jim Crow,’ and in many ways that’s what it became; where Jim Crow ended, the drug war picked up.
CV: So what was the point at which you said, “I have to make a movie about this?”
EJ: The social discovery of it, the sense that something was going in society, was with me for maybe twenty years. In the past fifteen or so years, I’ve been making a series of films about systemic prejudice and the American story, and I suppose in the last ten years, it became clear to me I was going to make a movie about it, and for some time after that it was a matter of how to go about that and what movie to make and how to make it.
CV: Why did you choose to tell this story as a first-person narrative?
EJ: I’ve never done that in any other film of mine, and I wasn’t planning to do it on this film; I thought that the individual stories that make up the dramatic tapestry of the movie would stand on their own and tell the movie for me. But the way the film evolved, it was clear to me that the film was ultimately diagnosing a national crisis, and it was trying to do that in a very methodical, almost clinical way to get at the roots and contemporary workings of a major problem. And though it would have been lovely for that to just emerge as a narrative though the lives of people, very often those people themselves were living in great bewilderment about the larger system, it wasn’t that known to them.
For example, a lot of people, I would ask them about the war on drugs and they would say, “What do you mean, war on drugs? Drugs are my problem. My family was ravaged by drugs.” They didn’t even know that there was a war on drugs. They thought I meant in Mexico, or Afghanistan. The fact that there was a government-wide program that we spent a trillion dollars on, and have had 45 million drug arrests in 40 years, that has led to such a record of abject failure, people very often didn’t know that. Even though their lives had been touched by it: they’d been arrested many times; they’d been in a cycle of incarceration and recidivism and the rest for years and years.
So the fact that they didn’t understand it meant it took some explaining. Harry Bellafonte visited my editing room one day and he asked me to stop the film about 25 minutes in – this was before it had a narration, before I was in it – and he said, “Where are you going with the film?” And it became clear to me that he felt the need to have the film guided by someone, so that the full range of its subject matter could be conveyed in an organized way with the strongest storytelling.
Because I had a personal implication in this, because I had gotten to this story through my own personal connections to people ravaged by this war, it seemed to make sense to tell it from the most honest perspective I had, which was my own.
CV: What were some obstacles or issues that cropped up as you were researching and shooting the movie?
EJ: It wasn’t really like that. What cropped up was a level of surprise. And that came from the way in which the people we went to find and who graced us with their testimony or their participation – how much they defied stereotype. Just when you think that somebody’s going to reveal themselves to you in the most stereotypical way possible, as when you see a prison guard from 500 feet – like Mike Carpenter, who appears in my film – and you think, well here’s a guy who’s a real lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key type, who never looks back, never has a second thought about incarcerating people… five minutes into the interview with him I discover he’s one of deepest thinkers you can imagine on exactly that question. He wrestles with it greatly. He gave us some of the smartest testimony we have in the film about just what’s wrong with the way we incarcerate people in America, and he’s doing this from the place where he’s in uniform, at the prison he’s running security at.
And he was not alone. We had cops in the film in their patrol car tell us in very concerned tones about the problems they had feeling comfortable with the job they’re doing, how it’s changed over the years, how they’re arresting the same people week in, week out, and they don’t see the good that it’s doing for the public. Judges, who told us from their chambers how their hands are tied by these absurd and grotesque mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have been passed by Congress, what an invasion of the judicial branch that is by the legislative branch. Everywhere we went, we saw people that defied stereotype and who took great risk, actually, from their place of employment, from where they could be most hurt; they would tell us most interesting things about the system. And that wasn’t a stumbling block; that was a force multiplier for the work we were trying to do, but it was very unexpected.
Interesting too, by contrast, very often the inmates would tell me things I couldn’t believe. Here I am making a movie about what I think is wrong with the prison system in America, but when you talk to the prisoners very often they will say, “Coming here to prison is the best thing that ever happened to me.” And when I first heard that I thought, “I don’t know what to do with that. Does that go with my movie?” And then I was reminded that Dostoevsky said that you can judge any society by the quality of its prisons. So what does it say when somebody believes that the country has gone so wrong, that life on the outside is so bad, that coming to prison is the best thing that’s ever happened to them? That’s a much deeper comment on the country than I could possibly have made by saying what a savage prison system we have.
So if you’re open to it, the surprises that come in peoples’ testimony and in the wisdom they have, those are the things that really change your mind, and act as a real hiccup in the way you thought you were going to go about it.
CV: So it sounds like you went into the movie with a certain set of ideas and thoughts of how you’d go about making the film, and came out with another.
EJ: There’s no question you have a subjectivity as a human. We all have it, and especially if you’re going to do the hard work of making a piece of art that is as much of an uphill battle as a documentary is, you need to have a passion to do that. Frankly, the audience wants you to have passion; they don’t want some disinterested party who could care less. They want you to care. But of course the question is, do you care in a way that’s rigid? Are you open to your belief systems or your impulses being challenged? And if you are open, I have found over time that the most interesting material comes out of that.
And if you’re confident that your impulses and your hunches are right, then probably what you’re going to learn is only going to deepen your portrayal. It’s going to seem more complicated and richer, and the audience will sense that legitimacy and therefore they’ll be far more open to what you’re probably still feeling, which is a need for reform.
Now had it actually turned out that we were running a great system in America and it was really for the best, I suppose I would have had to put that in the movie, because that’s the honest outcome. It’s just, that wasn’t in the cards.
CV: Once your movie was done and you wanted to get the message out, were you trying to get lawmakers to see this, or the average citizen? What was your goal in distribution?
EJ: All of the above, but we separated our efforts into two avenues of approach. I’ve made movies about public policy before, and the goal is at once to speak truth to power, but that’s not enough. You also have to speak truth to the people, to the powerless. Because change doesn’t happen from the top down, it usually happens from the bottom up. But it’s also helpful to engage constructively with policy makers in an effort to find ways in which a terrible outrage like this can begin to be mitigated. And it’s important to fire on both levels.
Once our film won at Sundance, we then used that prestige and leverage to spread the word widely across the country. So we show the film as much on Capitol Hill as we do in churches, prisons, and academic institutions across the country. At the same time, we also have deep contacts with the administration, with legislators both at the federal and state level, across the country. We were very involved in showing the film in California in advance of the passage of Prop 36. We’re lending it to these efforts that other people have been fighting for decades; we just joined the fight by making this instrument we’ve made available as a tool for social change.
CV: Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
EJ: We spend a lot of time on the road with this film all around the country trying to use it as a tool for change, so we really don’t distract ourselves too much with other projects. We are, at the same time, working on a serialized TV version of this film, which we hope to bring out in 2014.