The House I Live In: An Interview with Eugene Jarecki

The House I Live In: An Interview with Eugene Jarecki

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Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary, The House I Live In, explores America’s drug war, a conflict that has dragged on officially for more than 40 years. More of a phenomenon than actual war, it has cost U.S. taxpayers over $1 trillion and resulted in over 45 million arrests. Despite this, drugs are more potent and easily available than ever before.

The House I Live In is Jarecki’s eighth documentary as a director. His other standout work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002), which details the war crimes of Vietnam War prolonger and Secretary of State Kissinger, and Why We Fight (2005), an exploration of U.S. foreign policy and militarism. Both won grand jury prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2010 he directed a short web video “Move Your Money” that went viral and encouraged people to move their money out of large corporate banks and into local community banks and credit unions. Last year’s Reagan, a biography-documentary of the late U.S. President, earned the director an Emmy award.

Jarecki has become a high profile documentarian, but considering most of his subject choices this is a very good thing. The House I Live In should not be missed. Indyreader correspondent Joe Tropea caught up with him by phone after an afternoon screening of his latest film at Rikers Island.

[Excerpts of this interview originally appeared in City Paper.]

Joe Tropea: 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.

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

EJ: By the time I started making the film I had some good idea about the drug war because I had begun to learn in my pre-research that I was concerned about black life in America. [I was] particularly concerned about growing up in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and much of the promise of the Civil Rights movement did not come to pass for the mass of the black people. Yes, we have a black President and we have black celebrities that make a massive contribution to American life, but the mass of the black people, the leading indicators—social, political, and economic—have been bleak for decades. And they have not gotten meaningfully better in recent years. So I knew that and I was trying to find out what was the cause of that. The first thing I was pointed to by experts was mass incarceration which has so disproportionately ravaged black communities, watching their fathers, brothers, sons being carted off out of these neighborhoods to the detriment of the family values of the neighborhood. Why were black people being carted off? What was it that was causing such a disproportionate black incarceration? Of course that lead me to understand that it was the drug war.

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, many of whom find peace for the first time in their lives in prison because in their lives they’ve grown up in such a war zone of a country that four walls, a bed, and some quiet is actually a blessing in the worst way. And I would never want to say that of incarceration but it remains a fact that people get something out of being incarcerated our society has stripped them of. So the human majesty of people who are deeply engaged in their own flaws and their own effort for self-betterment. But 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.

JT: You spoke about the system in your first answer, so what would you say you learned making this film? Specifically what did you learn about American society and our system of laws and governance?

EJ: The top 400 people in this country now have more money than the bottom 130 million. That is a class gap unprecedented in human history. What comes with that is an equally disparate picture of control over the levers of power in this country. So for anyone to learn those figures and still cling nostalgically to the notion that we live in a democracy is to deal an insult to the very word democracy for all time. What I learned is that all across this country we see evidence of the terrible fingerprints of unchecked corporate power on the lives of everyday people. We see it when New York is under water and New Yorkers barely even get to the point where they might start wondering about the incredible influence of corporations on the degradation of the environment. We see it in how the banking sector made off with billions in taxpayers’ money and bankers barely got a slap on the wrist for it in the press when five blocks from where I’m talking to you right now a kid is getting stop-and-frisked and found with an ounce of something he couldn’t get from a doctor on his person and he’s going to get ten years. We also saw it in our education system, which has been sold out to private interests. We see it in our health care which is I would say the laughingstock but it’s the crying stock of the western world.

So in every walk of American life you can see that the Koolaid we drank under Reagan, that ridiculous notion that the rich getting richer will somehow magically lead to the best interests of the masses. That illusion has come a [crock] and we no longer see it as believable. We pay $4 at the tank for [a gallon of] gas when 10 years ago we paid $1.50, and people’s wages haven’t changed and their commutes to work have increased. So in every direction of American life you see everyday people getting the shaft while corporations have become enthroned in this society. We saw that in Citizens United, which not only produced the outcome that a corporation is an equal citizen to you and me—they’re not an equal citizen. They’re a favored citizen with favored nation status because you or I have certain civil liberties that comes with citizenship, but with that comes civil liability. We have the liability of people who can be sued. Corporations pride themselves on what’s called limited liability. So now you have corporations who have limited liability but unlimited privileges.

In our society it should stand as no wonder that we see in every walk of American life grotesque abuse of everyday people by the concentrated finance and the concentrated power of corporate America. What I saw in the prison industrial system was just another example of that. Only perhaps the most strident example because here is a machine that knowingly, self-admittedly feeds upon everyday human beings as its fuel. It runs on a steady diet of human beings flowing through the system, and the politicians work to pass laws that ensure the flow. And they do so because they want money in their campaign coffers from those corporations and they want jobs to their district from those corporations. It’s perhaps the most unseemly example I can imagine within our borders of putting profits before people and principal. But it’s by no means our only example. So that’s the system where politicians are basically bleeders/pleaders on behalf of their corporate patrons. What they do is make decisions that happen at the expense of the American people. The big difference between Republicans and Democrats as far as I can see is they both do that for a living. It just seems like the Democrats feel a little bad about it.

JT: You’ve assembled an impressive collection of sound bites and footage of U.S. politicians saying some absurd things. How did you find so much good archival material? Can you talk about your research process?

EJ: My process is a combination of complete chaos and great orderliness. And the chaos is me and the orderliness is my team. I put out a million requests and stimuli of things that interest me or I want to research or things I heard on the radio or something I read and then I have a very dogged team of researchers, Dan Demaro, Kara Elderson, Jerrel Kovac and others here at Charlotte Street Films, and they all go and really pound the pavement to find unusual pieces of footage. And when we get a certain piece we find relatives of it with better angles or better footage quality. We try to really perfect not just the content but also the form of what we’re getting and sometimes you find that something was gotten from more than one angle by more than one news bureau and you get them in different sensitivities.

It’s a pretty exacting process and it’s schizophrenic because we also make these films that are highly driven by human stories which are shot in live vérité so we have two different mindsets happening. One is a pursuit of very active vérité in real life among real people experiencing the force of a system like this and then the other is to get at the underpinnings of the system as revealed by its unfortunate history, the history they would like to hide. You know, Joe Biden at a time when this country is hemorrhaging economically under the incredible waste of the drug war probably rues the day that he sat in front of a camera and said, “We have to punish drug dealers at the harshest and most severe levels we can.” And so you have this regrettable history that comes to light when you go digging through archives. Very often it’s a history that really reveals to us how we got worked into such a frenzy on an issue like this, why we were lathered by our politicians, sort of worked into a lather to treat the nonviolent criminal very often more severely than we treat the violent. How did that suspension of common sense ever happen? And so when you look back through the trail of documents, the trail of footage, you start to see how it happened.

JT: How do you see the developments in states like Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana affecting the War on Drugs?

EJ: They’re very important developments but they have to be looked at in the right way. The bigger development on election day was in the state of California, where in Prop 36 Californians voted resoundingly to revise the state’s draconian three-strikes law which had been to date you could go to jail for the rest of your natural life for a third strike that was nonviolent, such as stealing a slice of pizza. One guy stole socks, a pair of socks, and got a life sentence. And it was so absurd for so long that Californians on Election Day voted overwhelmingly, 68 percent, to revise the law so that henceforth, the third strike that could put you in jail for life would have to be serious or violent as you would think it should be. And what that change and the changes in law in Colorado and Washington show is the massive shift in public opinion that is happening about the drug war and about the out of control incarceration of the nonviolent that goes on in this country.

I look at all the victories as a significant indicator of where the public is headed, but we have to be very careful because it isn’t just the public we have to keep in mind. We have a system of corruption that has tremendous bureaucratic thrust concentrated in Washington and the corporate sector and that is the force that has to be fought against and lobbied and pressured by people. And that’s where these victories can become dangerous, because when you have a need for revolution as we have in this country as with the criminal justice system and its unfairness. It’s like a pot of water on a stove with a cover on it. The longer that water boils and you keep that cover tightly on top, it will get to a point where it has to explode because it’s got to go somewhere. Every time you have a small victory, you run the risk that you’re letting a small amount of steam out of that pot and delaying the day when that true explosion has to happen, so I would be fearful that people will interpret those victories, which are just small skirmishes won, as the larger war being won. The war has barely started.

So they’re victories and I herald them and I think they herald a great shift in public opinion, but in order for Washington to come up to speed on public opinion, Washington has to be forced to do so because Washington is on the payroll in this system. In order for them to realize that payroll doesn’t cut it anymore, they need to know they’re going to lose in a whole other way and the way they’re going to lose is through votes. People have to hold their vote hostage from those who think they can get elected by talking tough on crime. It’s so destructive in this country that when people hear a politician hawking tough on crime rhetoric they have to boo and hiss that politician until he goes away and is replaced by someone who’s smart on crime or they learn to be smart on crime. I look at those victories as important but they should not be misinterpreted or put back to sleep a movement that is only just beginning.

JT: You just got back from screenings in London and Amsterdam. How was the film 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.

JT: 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 web site and there’s a place where you can enter your zip code to get involved and it will tell them in their state and area what the crucial things are that are going on against the war against drugs and how they can join that by adding their names to petitions, or supporting local organizations, or showing up at key events, or contacting their representatives in the most effective way to let their voice be heard to let them know how they want them to be smart on crime and move away from being tough on crime.

JT: Can you talk about your next film?

EJ: That’s an important question because I chose after making this one to take myself and my team out of producing any new film until further notice while we do what we consider to be the best job possible at deploying this film and getting it out to audiences across the country. We show it in prisons, churches, schools, and community centers to communities very often overlooked by the mainstream distribution even of political documentaries where there are too many assumptions about what audiences would or would not be interested in a film like this. We believe there’s a huge appetite for this film across urban audiences in this country and that’s a full-time job that for the moment has taken us out of film production.