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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: The House I Live In

This film started out a little slow for me, and it also does two things I’m generally not fond of in documentary films: it uses a great deal of voiceover, and the director integrates himself heavily into the story. But wait, bear with me, because if you stick with this film, it pays off very well in spite of — perhaps even because of — those things. Jarecki’s a tremendously talented documentarian, and he deftly weaves together his family’s personal history and his own relationship with Nannie Jeter, the Black housekeeper/nanny who cared for him and his brothers when they were growing up, with his own growing understanding of the disparity between the paths he and his brothers took and the paths the members of Nanny’s family, with whom the Jarecki brothers grew up, into a greater tale about the War on Drugs and its disproportionate impact on African-American men.

Jarecki talks in the film about how Nannie Jeter is like a second mother to him, how her children and grandchildren grew to become like his extended family. Jarecki and his brothers came of age in a progressive household on the cusp of the civil rights movement, and this is clearly a very personal film for him that’s been percolating, probably for decades — or at least since he became aware of the way his own life and that of his brothers diverged sharply from the paths of Nannie Jeter’s family as they all got older. And the more he investigated, the more he developed what’s essentially the thesis of this film — that the War on Drugs is misguided at best and unfairly targets minorities. And Jarecki hammers his points home, with precision: There are more Blacks in prison now than there were in slavery before the Civil War. African-Americans are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites, even for the same crime. Laws that target crack cocaine make the penalties for sale or possession of crack (which is more likely to be used by African Americans) harsher than those for cocaine in its powder form (which is more like to be used by whites).

Jarecki also puts to good use some vintage anti-marijuana PSAs, which seem laughable today, and contrasts them with the nearly identical messages we’re seeing about other drugs now. And he points out something I didn’t know, and that you maybe didn’t either: That while President Nixon targeted drug abuse as a societal ill, his focus was more on treating drug addiction as a problem that people could be helped to overcome, rather than a crime for which they needed to be locked up. And speaking of locked up, for good measure Jarecki also delves into the myriad issues surrounding mandatory minimum sentences, which tie the hands of judges in being able to truly serve justice in many cases.

It’s a great deal of ground to cover in a roughly 90-minute documentary, but Jarecki is up to the task, weaving the many threads of his story together into a very effective, very engaging and cohesive whole. My one caveat about this film is that for me, it feels like it would play better to a television audience than in theaters. That’s not a criticism of the filmmaking, nor do I see that as a bad thing; it would reach a much broader audience through that medium, and the subject matter is too important to allow it to be swept under a rug.

3 Responses to “Sundance Review: The House I Live In”

  1. Andrew St John says:

    Good for Charlotte St Films for taking on a complex and politically unpopular subject. As has been stated, the “war on drugs” is a politician’s response to social inequities that are too complicated for sound bites. (While I’m commenting, I have a problem with this review. The reviewer seems to like the film, but pans it in the first and last lines. He also omits a verb in the last line of the second paragraph. Films are a huge investment; their reviews should be accurate and clear.)

  2. torpid bunny says:

    There are some grammar slips but the review is clear. And the Voynar didn’t pan the movie. Saying the movie would work better on tv is not a pan (as Voynar herself explains). Saying the movie starts slow is also not a pan. Basically your comment amounts to saying you can’t deal with any subtlety.

  3. Kim Voynar says:

    Andrew, thanks for pointing out the missed verb, correction made. 30 films in eight days, reviewing as many as I can, some mistakes slip through. But mea culpa, and thank heavens, there are always the internet police out there waiting to point out anything that slips by me.

    That aside, his wasn’t a pan of the film at all, which I think it pretty abundantly clear. And I’m very aware that films are a huge investment, having worked on this side of the business for eight years, and recently wrapped my first film, which I wrote, directed and produced.

    Also, I’m not a “he,” I’m a “she.” Since we’re being particular about accuracy of small details and all.

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“We now have a situation where audiences very often prefer commercial trash to Bergman’s Persona or Bresson’s L’Argent. Professionals find themselves shrugging, and predicting that serious, significant works will have no success with the general public. What is the explanation? Decline of taste or impoverishment of repertoire? Neither and both. It is simply that cinema now exists, and is evolving, under new conditions. That total, enthralling impression which once overwhelmed the audiences of the 1930s was explained by the universal delight of those who were witnessing and rejoicing over the birth of a new art form, which furthermore had recently acquired sound. By the very fact of its existence this new art, which displayed a new kind of wholeness, a new kind of image, and revealed hitherto unexplored areas of reality, could not but astound its audiences and turn them into passionate enthusiasts.

Less than twenty years now separate us from the twenty-first century. In the course of its existence, through its peaks and troughs, cinema has travelled a long and tortuous path. The relationship that has grown up between artistic films and the commercial cinema is not an easy one, and the gulf between the two becomes wider every day. Nonetheless, films are being made all the time that are undoubtedly landmarks in the history of cinema. Audiences have become more discerning in their attitude to films. Cinema as such long ago ceased to amaze them as a new and original phenomenon; and at the same time it is expected to answer a far wider range of individual needs. Audiences have developed their likes and dislikes. That means that the filmmaker in turn has an audience that is constant, his own circle. Divergence of taste on the part of audiences can be extreme, and this is in no way regrettable or alarming; the fact that people have their own aesthetic criteria indicates a growth of self-awareness.

Directors are going deeper into the areas which concern them. There are faithful audiences and favorite directors, so that there is no question of thinking in terms of unqualified success with the public—that is, if one is talking about cinema not as commercial entertainment but as art. Indeed, mass popularity suggests what is known as mass culture, and not art.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky, “Sculpting In Time”

“People seem to be watching [fewer] movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. It’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. He’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.”
~ Homemakers‘ Colin Healey On Indie Distribution