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Impressively directed and impeccably researched, this is a powerful and important documentary that's by turns fascinating, shocking, moving, disturbing, rage-inducing and utterly depressing.
Directed by Eugene Jarecki, The House I Live In is a documentary that painstakingly examines the failure of America's four decade long War On Drugs, initiated by Nixon in the late 1960s (alongside some remarkably progressive policies aimed at actual treatment) and adopted with increasing ferocity by subsequent governments ever since. Jarecki begins the film by looking at a single, personal example, his African-American housekeeper, whose son died of a drug overdose; from there he expands ever outwards, interviewing police officers, lawyers, convicts, ex-convicts, academics, politicians and random people on the street (one of whom says she hasn't even heard the expression 'War on Drugs' since the 1980s).
What emerges is a unanimous agreement that the current ultra-tough drug strategies simply aren't working: the tough sentencing doesn't act as a deterrent and young people continue to either use drugs or get involved in dealing because there are no economically viable alternatives. That's depressing enough, but what's more disturbing is the revelation that businesses and governments actually make money by building and filling the equivalents of pop-up prisons.
The individual stories Jarecki presents are utterly heartbreaking, most notably the example of a low-level drug dealer facing a government-dictated minimum sentence of ten years or so for a minor offence; this part of the film also details the efforts of politicians to get the law amended so that judges can sentence at their own discretion again, but it's clear the damage has already been done a hundred times over.
Jarecki's wide range of talking heads pays enormous dividends, giving a wide-ranging view of the problem from all sides. One of his key interviewees is David Simon, ex-journalist and co-creator of The Wire, whose comments are extremely incisive. However, nobody interviewed seems to have anything approaching a viable solution to the problem.
Another key interviewee is academic Richard Lawrence Miller, who looks at America's treatment of drug problems throughout history and concludes that draconian drug policies are actually a covert way of controlling immigrant populations: opium with the Chinese, cocaine and crack with African-Americans, marijuana with Mexicans, meth with the white underclass and so on. Miller's subsequent shocking comparisons with Nazi Germany and concentration camps may look like devil's advocacy at first, but the reality bears him out; either way, America's prison statistics are both horrifying and depressing.
The House I Live In is an important documentary that demands to be seen and should be included as an extra on all box-sets of The Wire. Highly recommended.— Matthew Turner, View London
Tue March 5, 2013, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, 2012, English, Color, 108 mins, 1.85:1, DP, Not Rated • official site