|'the tension that Jarecki must justify his personal involvement in his film is ever-present, a thorn in the director's side as he moves over much more compelling ground'|
The personalised opening of Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In proves to be the deciding nature of this often inflammatory documentary discussing the related problems of the overcrowded US prison system and the aggressive pursuit of more, longer, sentences for comparatively minor drug-related crimes. By the time the film has reached its conclusion, Jarecki has fairly successfully linked the timeline of the holocaust, which his family escaped from, to the destruction of families by drugs and US incarceration methodologies.
On paper this looks like it might be a stretch but on screen Jarecki's argument is poweful, compelling and clearly thought out by someone who knew he was going to be treading very controversial ground. None of that stops it from operating on the line where theorising stops and making a home movie starts. There's something of the Michael Moore about Jarecki here, something which hints that the issues in this film had to be related to himself, they couldn't survive on their own two feet. Perhaps, in the end, he successfully suggests this is the case - the guy down the street losing his civil rights today is you losing them tomorrow, one contributor says - but the tension that Jarecki must justify his personal involvement in his film is ever-present, a thorn in the director's side as he moves over much more compelling ground.
What this inevitably means is that some of the more interesting arguments or interviewees are marginalised, or at least the ones who do not aid the director's view. A Historian, who has a well thought out theory on the parallels between the holocaust and US drug policy, gets time to air his complete thesis. Two cops on the front line against drugs get one or two interviews, mostly in the back of the car whilst on the job. There's good stuff in both still but the balance is stifled by Jarecki's self-necessitated decision to fit his story into an existing narrative.
Like so many polemical documentaries - and it can be argued here how much of a problem this is - the other downfall of The House I Live In is that it just does not get to a complete alternative answer, presented in a way which seems thorough and thought out. Get rid of extreme jail sentences for relatively minor offences, the film seems to argue for, without ever establishing the effects this would have; whether it would solve the under-funding of rehabilitation programmes or what the police involved would be reassigned to do. There's little question that there is a lot of substance in Jarecki's dissection of prevailing law but on two key counts his presentation suffers, a fact which eventually led this to miss out on Oscar consideration.