Interview: Eugene Jarecki on Searching for the Light at the End of the War on Drugs in the Oscar Shortlisted “House I Live In”

The director of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner "Why We Fight" eyes an even bigger award with his sobering look at America's failed war on drugs....Read More
Law enforcement look into the horizon in Eugene Jarecki's drug war documentary "The House I Live In"

Eugene Jarecki knew the statistics were staggering. Making a documentary about America’s war on drugs, the filmmaker who previously tackled America’s equally complex and overwhelming military industrial complex in the award-winning “Why We Fight” understood the challenge wasn’t to find the evidence that the initiative originally launched by Richard Nixon to curb narcotics has been unequivocally a losing battle that has cost billions of dollars and locked up millions with the true cost being passed onto the families of those incarcerated and the communities that have been targeted.

However, it was when he began to hold early screenings of the film for friends that Jarecki realized that to make it truly effective, he would need to make it personal. At the behest of no less an authority than Harry Belafonte, the filmmaker discovered that to talk about how the drug war has touched us all, he’d have to include the story of Nanny Jeter, the woman who inspired him to make the film in the first place after being his caretaker when he was young, spending time with him that prevented her from being with her own children, including a son that would fall prey to drug abuse.

“One of the things he did most of all was encourage me to allow my own story,” Jarecki says of Belafonte. “Without his advice along those lines, I probably would’ve been a bit more hesitant.”

It’s hard to imagine now when the resulting film, “The House I Live In” brims with confidence, even as it depicts an approach to the drug problem riddled with questions, a labyrinth of frustrated police with arrest ratios to reach, a legal system fraught with mandatory sentencing laws, and prisons concerned with profit more than reform. Earlier this year, I spoke with Jarecki about sorting all of it out for an article for TakePart, but felt compelled to publish the entire conversation now that “The House I Live In” has been shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination and it still is making its way around the country in theatrical release. Here, we talk about how the drug war has become a civil rights issue and making a film intended to spark conversation while satisfying as a self-contained film.

How did you become interested in this subject?

The war on drugs is something that has been in the background of my life for ten or 20 years since I’ve grown up in America and noticed that many of my friends in the African-American community seem to be encountering obstacles to progress in the wake of the civil rights movement. When I grew up, like a lot of Americans, I thought that things were just going to get better for black America after those gains. But I noticed as I grew older that something was blocking black progress. As I did a bit of research and tried to get at the heart of the problem, talking to black families who worried more and more about what they were encountering, time and again, it kept coming back to this war on drugs.

At the L.A. Film Festival, you had discussed overcoming potential embarrassment in a variety of realms in terms of making this – since the drug issue seems to be an embarrassing thing for a lot of people to discuss in general, did that help shape what you wanted to do with this film?

I went into this subject knowing that there are sensitivities that people bring to a subject like this that have to be understood and appreciated. A lot of Americans don’t really understand that in many cases addiction is not a choice for people. It’s something that happens to them at a time of their lives where they’re either young or they’re in pain or they’re confused and they end up coming into contact with a drug that then very much takes over their lives and their person. Before long, they find themselves not masters of their own destiny, not able to make that kind of choice to steer free of addiction, so then we end up looking at those people and instead of viewing with them with compassion and understanding, we end up looking at them and treating them like villains, not as victims.

For those who have seen your previous film “Why We Fight,” the parallels between America’s industrial military complex and the penal system that’s depicted in this film are striking. Was it a similar process of navigation?

It was. You’re looking at an industrial system here and we have many in America that put private, political or economic profit and gain ahead of the lives of ordinary people. The military industrial complex does that by compromising our men and women in uniform and putting them in harm’s way with inappropriate preparation and forethought so that a handful of companies can make their profit and a handful of politicians can ensure their careers from, and of course, horrendous damage is inflicted on countries like Iraq. When I turned my lens here at home, the penal industrial system that has arisen around the war on drugs is just another example of another system that puts profit before people and it’s willing to be so predatory and preying the lives of everyday Americans that an elite handful of companies and their friends in government can make the kind of profit, political and economic, that they seek.

Since this story is so sprawling, at what point did you realize what was the central story you wanted to tell was?

The central story began and will always be the story of Nanny Jeter, who’s the person in the film whom I’m most close with and have loved through all my life. I’d like to think she loved me and her relationship, now friendship as it’s grown through the years became a subject that I had to make a film about in one way or another because I had watched the drug war ravage her family. It was such a contrast to the comfort that I grew up with and the wealth of privileges and possibilities I had as a young person and I owe so much of that to her for taking care of me. She tried very hard, but the economics of America robbed people of the ability to be in all the places they need to be in order to have a complete life. So her life in many ways is divided between the need to make a living that she had with my family and taking care of her children, which of course she lost her son James to the forces that overtake a young person when they have insufficient guidance and help. I watched that process happen within my own lifetime, so naturally I’m drawn to have to speak out about that because in some small measure, I’m implicated in that. There but for the grace of God went I.

Yet while the film tells a personal story, you’ve said you made the film to be used as a tool for others. How did that inform the film?

When you’re making a movie like mine, you know there are long-distance runners for justice out there who’ve been fighting for reform of the drug war for decades, so you can’t just walk along and add a film to the equation and be ignorant of who’s who in the fight for justice. You have to be cognizant and respectful of all those doing the hard work. Not only did we consult those people all along the way and seek them out and try to celebrate and elevate them by putting them in and portraying their work in the film, but above all, we also made sure that the film at the end of the day is an open film that doesn’t have a closed mind. It doesn’t say the answer to this complicated problem is this simple solution.

The most important thing we could do is have the film be informative and driven by human stories, but also at the end of the day remain open so that somebody could show the film no matter what their version of events, no matter what their inscription for changing the war on drugs is, so they can show the film and won’t feel that it’s muscled out their version of how the world might be helped, that it allows for all manner of interpretation of how we all go forward from here, which of course is going to need a dialogue, not a fixed opinion.

How would you like to see this film inform the debate over the ongoing war on drugs?

There are two levels I want people to respond to this film in my highest hopes. One way is at a macro, national level, I want it to be understood that the war on drugs is a thing of the past that has to be relegated to the ashes of history. It was a terrible idea to spend a trillion dollars over 40 years, to have 45 million arrests and have nothing to show for it other than the increased availability of drugs, cheaper and used by more and more Americans every day. That complete failure has to be understood for what it is. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

That’s above all what people need to take away, but how they can fight it is at a state-by-state level and a town-by-town, county-by-county level [is equally important], so with our Web site, you can enter your zip code and it will tell you in your area what you can do to learn more about what’s happening in the war on drugs and what you can do to become involved because there are groups in all of our areas that are fighting this battle in anonymity, in the shadows and they have been for far too long. They need popular support and therefore we try to provide an engine through our website, to our Twitter feed and everything else 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.

“The House I Live In” continues to play at theaters across the country. A full list of screenings and dates can be found here. It will also air on PBS’ Independent Lens on April 8th, 2013.

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