x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Documentary The House I Live In tackles the US's war on drugs

We take a look at a film that broaches one the US's most contentious issues.

A scene from Eugene Jarecki's documentary The House I Live In, which explores the US's war on drugs.
A scene from Eugene Jarecki's documentary The House I Live In, which explores the US's war on drugs.

Just occasionally, a documentary is more than just a movie. Take Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In, which won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category at this year's Sundance Film Festival. In Jarecki's eyes, this dense analysis of America's war on drugs doesn't end when the credits roll. Rather, it's just the beginning, when it comes to this very controversial subject.

Propelled by the addition of the actor Brad Pitt as the executive producer, this film is even more biting than Jarecki's 2005 study of US foreign policy in Why We Fight, and he wants to use it as a tool to help reform the drug laws in the US, which - as the film states - are not only too strict but actually increase the damage done by narcotics abuse. "There are towns across the country that have laws that are too severe," he says, by way of example. "They have so many people going to jail that it's ravaging these communities."

With each US state governed by its own laws, it requires targeted action. "I have to go state by state, district by district, community by community, and try to really deploy the film to impact the lawmaking and the politics in a given area," Jarecki says, noting that his plan "for social change" will begin at a local level, specifically launching the film in some 20 states.

In California, for example, he has joined forces with Stanford Law School, which asked to use his film as the "centrepiece" to its campaign against the three-strikes law there - the law that means a third offence, however petty, can put a perpetrator in jail for life. With Californians voting on this law next month, Jarecki is convinced his film will "be part of one of the first real moments of change in the severity of these drugs laws".

Within the film, Jarecki interviews a diverse range of people - from a US district court judge in Iowa to an Oklahoma prison warder to David Simon, the creator of the popular Baltimore TV drama series The Wire, who, interestingly, points out that police officers are given overtime pay for making easy arrests for narcotics possession - while others working on harder-to-solve homicides go unrewarded.

If those police profit from enforcing existing drug laws, it's just the tip of the iceberg, with Jarecki unveiling how a whole industry has been built up around prison construction. While he's confident "a good amount of change will happen", he's also aware that there will be people who don't want the drug laws to change. "The question is," he says, "what level of resistance will the forces that profit from this mount?"

The House I Live In screens today at 4.30pm at Marina Mall's Vox 1 Cinema, and on Friday at 4pm at Vox 4.