Despite fallout from America’s war on drugs being the reason why he wanted to make his new documentary film, director Eugene Jarecki wasn’t originally planning to include himself in The House I Live In. But in recounting the ongoing drug war’s history of calamitous effects on all Americans, the acclaimed director of Why We Fight, a 2006 documentary that dissected America’s military-industrial complex, realized he couldn’t exclude the drug war’s impact on him.
“I was afraid of putting myself in the way, taking away screentime from incredibly sensitive and valuable lives,” Jarecki tells TakePart. “It is a movie about many, many people all across America, all walks of life who suffer and are victims of the drug war whether they’re in law enforcement or they’re locked up—all the victims who have been touched by the drug war and its bankrupt morality.”
Urged on by his friend Harry Belafonte, who saw an early cut of The House I Live In, Jarecki began his film with the story of Nannie Jeter, his African-American caretaker.
Caught in the trap of financially supporting her own children while not being able to stay at home with them, Jeter could only watch on as her son James fell prey to drug abuse. Sadly, this was not a situation unique to Jeter. She saw relatives incarcerated for and killed by drugs.
“All that does is say to them, ‘Look, I see your pain and recognize it, but instead of showing compassion for your illness, I'm going to ratchet it up.’ ”
The film shows the drug war as particularly devastating to African Americans in particular. Government policies and law-enforcment practices create a perpetual cycle of socioeconomic stagnation that profits only the agencies making arrests and the corporations building prisons to house the people arrested.
“We don’t treat [addicts] as people who have a public health problem,” says Jarecki. “We treat them instead as villains, as somebody we need to target and lock them up and throw away the key. And of course, all that does is it says to them, ‘Look, I see your pain and recognize it, but instead of showing compassion for your illness, I'm going to ratchet it up.’”
Jarecki is using The House I Live In, which won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, to fight back against the war on drugs.
America’s current militarized approach to a public health issue started with Richard Nixon’s 1971 official declaration of a war on drugs, and has been ratcheted up by the presidential administrations that followed. The House I Live In offers up a clear recitation of facts (45 million arrests at a cost of a trillion dollars) and presents experts from both sides of the current laws to demonstrate why they haven’t worked.
“We understand it’s a complicated problem and it’ll have a complex, multifaceted solution,” says Jarecki. “We want all of those who seek reform in one way or another in the war on drugs to be able to use the film in their own work, to show it to audiences, gather popular support for what is long overdue, which is a global recall of the war on drugs that has hurt so many Americans and so many around the world.”
Jarecki hopes audiences will pursue action through the film’s Web site and what he calls “the long-distance runners for justice who’ve been fighting for reform for decades,” such as the Drug Policy Alliance.
The director also hopes the film release’s proximity to the November elections can impact a ballot measure in California that would limit the harsh three strikes law to only be finalized in the event of serious and/or violent crimes, and the Youth PROMISE Act, a bill championed by Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott that favors prevention programs now to incarceration later.
“This is our longest war and our most grotesque failure,” says Jarecki. “We’re trying to provide an engine so people can join the dialogue, but not just talk about it but become real boots on the ground in the fight against the war on drugs.”
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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore