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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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~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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