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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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DEADLINE: How does a visualist feel about people watching your films on a phone or VOD?
REFN: It depends on what kind of movie you make. We had great success with Only God Forgives on multiple platforms in the U.S. Young people will decide how they see it, when they want to see it. Don’t try to fight it. Embrace it. That’s a wonderful opportunity. We’re at the most exciting time since the invention of the wheel, in terms of creativity because distribution and accessibility have changed everything. A camera is still a camera whether it’s digital or not; there’s still sound; an actor is an actor. Ninety-nine percent of what you do is going to be seen on a smart phone – I know this is the greatest thing ever made because it allows people to choose, watching what you do on this format or go into a theater and see it on a screen. That means more people than ever will see what I do, which is personally satisfying in terms of vanity. But you have to be able to adapt, to accept things in different order and length than we’re used to. We are in a very, very exciting time.
~ Nic Refn to Jen Yamato

DEADLINE: You mention Tarantino, who with Christopher Nolan and a few other giants, saved film stock from extinction. To him, showing a digital film in a theater is the equivalent of watching TV in public. Make an argument for why digital is a good film making canvas.
REFN: Costwise, it’s a very effective way for young people to start making movies. You can make your movie on an iPhone. It’s wonderful seeing how my own children use technology to enhance creativity. For me it’s a wonderful canvas. Sure, I love grain in film. I love celluloid. But I also like creativity. I like crayons, I like pencils, I like paint. It’s all relative. Technology is more inclusive. A hundred years ago when film was invented, it was an elitist club. Very few people got to make it, very few people controlled it and very few people owned it. A hundred years later, storytelling through images is everyone’s domain. It’s ultimate capitalism. There are no rules, and no barriers and no Hays Code. Where does this go in another hundred years? I don’t know but I would love to see it.
~ Nic Refn To Jen Yamato