Editor’s note: With The House I Live In beginning its theatrical roll-out this Friday (check out cities and theaters HERE), here is a well-timed re-run of our Sundance Film Festival review of the film, first published on January 29, 2012.
Documentarian Eugene Jarecki‘s latest film, The House I Live In, ponders the implications and elements of the United States’ woefully misdirected “War on Drugs,” but Jarecki’s interest in the subject is surprisingly personal. As the film opens, Jarecki explains that his subject matter is dear to him for two reasons – because the Jarecki family as a whole believes it is their responsibility to help others who are suffering from injustice (the Jarecki parents escaped certain death under Nazi regimes) and because Jarecki’s own beloved childhood nanny, Nanny Jetter, lost a child to drugs. But while the film is of personal importance to its director, an overabundance of information often robs the film from leaving a lasting emotional mark.
Jarecki’s film is comprised of a bevy of facts and figures about the War on Drugs that will likely surprise viewers, along with a hefty number of interviews that cross people, professions, and whole states. Jarecki’s subjects include users, dealers, cops, judges, professors, prisoners, wardens, friends, and family, and much of his access is quite impressive (Jarecki’s ride-alongs with a New York City dealer are especially interesting). It’s a truly informative documentary, though it sags on occasion, and feels much longer than its 110-minute runtime.
The House I Live In easily breaks down why the War on Drugs is so shockingly misguided – for reasons such as the disparities between different races arrested and imprisoned for drugs (overwhelmingly African-American and lower class), the prevalence of cops arresting for the more simple non-violent drug crimes (leaving more dangerous criminals out on the street), and the insanity of minimum sentencing laws (including a previous statute that essentially made crack cocaine punishments one hundred times worse than cocaine punishments). David Simon, creator of The Wire, who weighs in throughout the film, describes the situation in simply, and powerful terms: “What drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against them has.”
Viewers of the film will likely be left with the sinking feeling that we’ve all been lied to about the War on Drugs – and we have, because it hasn’t worked and Jarecki has absolutely no problem outlining the myriad ways it is so. But while the film makes certain things plain, it doesn’t offer solutions, and its attempts to synthesize the crusade in other, more meaningful ways (such as a fascinating comparison to the Holocaust) don’t get the time and attention they need. It’s a good start, but it’s just that – a start.
The Upside: The House I Live In doesn’t need to employ any tricks or twists to tell a compelling story, and Jarecki’s film is packed with information and insight that should leave audiences both informed and aghast.
The Downside: Jarecki’s film aims to cover perhaps too much information, making its personal impact feel significantly diminished. An intriguing theory that is introduced in the film’s final act would have served the production much better had Jarecki used it to frame up the entire film.
On the Side: The film, Jarecki’s seventh documentary, won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary at the festival.