The Impact Interview Series is a collaboration between WITNESS and BRITDOC, who produce and host the Impact Awards for independent documentaries. Read more about the Award and this year’s five winning films here.
The documentary The House I Live In by award-winning filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes on the 40+ year old “war on drugs” in the United States. Announced by President Richard Nixon, the war on drugs aimed to keep narcotics off the streets and out of Americans’ hands. It did so through aggressive criminal justice policies which have resulted in 45 million arrests, costing more than US$1 trillion, and has increasingly been criticized for its socio-economic failings, with calls for reform growing louder.
In the following interview, our final in our series with the 2014 BritDoc Impact Award winners, Mr. Jarecki discusses why this story was of personal importance to him and why he conceived of it as more than just a film from the beginning.
Matisse/WITNESS: Why was it important to tell the story about the human toll and the human rights implications of the US’ “War on Drugs”?
Eugene Jarecki: Over the last four decades, the prevailing narrative about America’s War on Drugs was that it was perpetrated in the name of the public good. Drug use was unerringly portrayed as a terribly destructive activity, and so anything placed in opposition to it must be positive. The truth, of course, is much more complicated and insidious than that. I made THE HOUSE I LIVE IN to try to correct the public record and show that, even though drug abuse can have an enormously harmful effect on individuals and societies, the War on Drugs has done nothing but made the problem worse.
You traveled to 20 states to document stories from people affected by the War on Drugs. Was there a particular personal story that struck you as emblematic of the rights issues at play? How and why do you think it struck a chord?
Kevin Ott was born and raised in the state of Oklahoma, and he is guaranteed to die there as well. He was sentenced to life in an Oklahoma prison for three ounces of methamphetamine. Although the film largely focuses on the gross injustices suffered by Black urban Americans under the War on Drugs, Kevin is a white man from a predominantly rural area. That said, his story is deeply representative of the plight of many caught up in the vast machinery of the Drug War. Facing difficult economic times, he started to self medicate and soon found himself with few options but to sell the drugs to which he had become addicted. With no help and even fewer prospects, his situation was intractable and, of course, criminalized. His life sentence just shows the depths of depravity to which we have sunk as a nation.
If there is one person that you hope sits down to watch this film, who would that be (or if they saw it, who was that person)? And why?
Nannie Jeter, a woman who helped raise me and is still a large part of my life, helped inspire this movie and is also a character who serves as something of guiding light throughout the film. She has seen it several times now and has appeared on panels to talk about it and her family’s experiences with the War on Drugs. I think that, initially, she found the film very painful because it put a name to something that had been haunting her and her community for a long time in an amorphous way. But I think she has since embraced it, which is good, because in many ways, I made the film for her. It’s kind of a love letter to her.
Why did you choose to submit to the Impact Award?
From the very beginning of production we envisioned THE HOUSE I LIVE IN as more than just a film. It was the means to launch a campaign for change, and from the get-go, my team and I committed two years to an intense and concentrated action plan after the film’s release. Since then, the campaign, and the issues of racial and economic injustice it addresses, have moved further into the national spotlight and gained a momentum of their own, so now we have no intention of letting off the gas. We applied for the Impact Award because any increased attention on drug policy and criminal justice reform is good attention, and because I feel that, through trial and error, we’ve discovered some best practices that will prove incredibly helpful to other filmmakers looking to use their films for social change.
Tell us about the impact the film has had.
Broadly, the film has been in the vanguard of a monumental change in public perception about US drug policy. What once was an issue that, without fail, was answered with phrases like “lock them up and throw away the key’, is now debated with much more nuance and complexity, and just in the last two years, drug use and abuse has increasingly (and rightly) been labeled a question of public health instead of a criminal justice matter. More specifically, the film and its partners have actively supported several successful legislative initiatives, at both the state and federal level, that are slowly swinging the pendulum away from the draconian, prison-centric model of the past, to one of compassion, public health, and sane sentencing.
What are your plans for your next project?
We’re developing a wide array of projects right now, and while I don’t generally like to talk about them publicly before they are introduced into the world, several will have active outreach campaigns like THE HOUSE I LIVE IN. I’ve come to realize that it isn’t enough for me to just make a film and then abandon it to the forces of the marketplace. Instead I feel a moral and practical obligation to deploy my films in the world to their fullest extent. The process of social change in a sense begins, rather than ends, on the day of release.
Learn more about The House I Live In and its associated movement building at the website.
Featured image: Inmates in the film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, an Abramorama release 2012. Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist.