Eugene Jarecki on Fighting the Good Fight and Taking a Closer Look at the War on Drugs

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki

We sat down with acclaimed filmmaker Eugene Jarecki to talk with him about his penetrating look at the profound human rights implications of America’s longest war: the War on Drugs. His film, The House I Live In, premieres April 8 at 10 PM on Independent Lens (check local listings).

What impact do you hope this film will have?
The hope is that by reaching as many people as possible, serious conversations about drug policy reform will start taking place across the country. We would like to support local achievable initiatives in pursuit of a domino strategy, encouraging further legislation with small victories, while simultaneously making drug policy an issue large enough on the national stage that it’s hard to ignore. We want to let policy makers, criminal justice professionals, and community leaders know that the water is warm – that they are not the only ones who have the sneaking suspicion that our current way of handling drugs and addiction is backwards and failing. For too long, it has been taboo to suggest that drug use is anything but a crime, but that approach is clearly and demonstrably not working.

What led you to make this film?
I’ve been thinking about making this film for over 20 years.

I first met Nannie Jeter, a prominent character in the film, when I was just a few days old coming home from the hospital. From that day on, she became a second mother to me, and her children and grandchildren a second family. I am white and Nannie and her family are black, and growing up in the wake of the civil rights movement, I think I imagined we were all living in a post-racial America – a place of greater equality and justice. Yet, as we grew older, our paths diverged – where I found privilege and opportunity, Nannie’s family found a new kind of struggle that re-emerged with a vengeance for black Americans in the post civil rights era.

When I asked Nannie what had happened, she felt that it was chiefly the rise of drugs in America that had ravaged the lives of people in her family. But the more I talked to experts in drug abuse, the more I heard the same thing – that whatever damage drugs do to people has been made far worse by the laws America has enacted to stop drugs. Suddenly, the so-called “war on drugs” began rising into view as something I had to investigate and better understand. I wanted to know what it was that had most fundamentally hurt people I love.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Managing the demands of a character driven narrative alongside an examination of such wide-ranging and dense policy – all while keeping the whole project coherent and concise.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
We were honest and forthright with them, and in several cases spent significant amounts of time with subjects before asking them the hard questions. For the most part though, we found that people we talked to were eager to share their views on the drug war, both those affected by it and those carrying it out.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
When I interviewed prisoner Anthony Johnson in a federal facility, I was advised it was against the rules to shake hands with the prisoner. So I let him know that I was shaking his hand in my mind, and with the same boyish smile I would see repeatedly during his account of a rudderless and challenging childhood, he told he was shaking my hand in his mind too.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Being present at the funeral of a family member of one of the film’s central characters and learning how widely the drug war had touched her family.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The response has been very positive – and people seem happy we made it. It’s a heavy subject, and a dense film, so new audiences often seem a bit overwhelmed as they process the pile of bricks that’s been dropped on their heads. I think the best indicator of its success is that many people have told us they were still thinking about the film weeks after seeing it. Most of the subjects have seen it and so far have had nothing but good things to say.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The good fight.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
When we started trying to find funds for The House I Live In several years ago, it wasn’t a good time for documentaries. Public television stations around the world were the only outlets interested in supporting difficult and important projects. Without public television (in the US and UK in particular) this film probably would never have been made.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t handle any other aspect of my life very well. For me, making a film is all consuming.

What are your three favorite films?
When We Were Kings, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Lives of Others.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Take the scenic route.

Learn more about The House I Live In, see additional video excerpts, view an interactive timeline of U.S. drug policies over the years, and test your knowledge about the War on Drugs.

Watch The House I Live In Takes a Hard Look at The War on Drugs on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.


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  • Phil

    Eugene’s film was a moving look at the implications of the drug war on human rights. All good insights. However I felt at times it left out the fact that some of the coldest, most senseless and soulless violence perpetrated on other humans comes from drug dealers and many drug users. It’s equally as shocking when you are exposed to the callousness and complete disregard for human life that you will witness in the drug trade.

    • Trish House

      Matched only by the callousness and complete disregard for human life that you will witness when the Haves among us deny the rights of those that have not made it in the game of Exploitation that we in America call Life. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the people that wish to hoard and exploit have dominated our culture and have taken our natural instinct to help and protect each other out of the equation. Professor Michael Perelman has written several books on the subject not the least of which is ‘The Invention of Capitalism.’ If you want a perfect study on cold, senseless, soulless violence as a model read it. It will show you how the Haves have taken us here and why we go along with this culture.

  • secretagentgirl

    amazing, important work. thank you.

  • james hunt

    next State of the Union turn out the lights and show this. Might be better than 2 hours of empty talk.

  • Stephen Semple

    Exceptional film. I didn’t get the name of the white bearded historian, and would like to read his historical work.

  • Logic&Reason&Compassion

    Every lawmaker needs to view this all-important program and then review the incredibly ridiculous laws that have exacerbated non-violent drug crime incarceration; it was like watching insanity unfold through the existing laws – what folly

  • David Liberty

    Definitely the finest documentary on the subject I have seen. My primary complaints however were that the term “legalization” was never used (I have to wonder about outside pressure), the Portuguese legalization success was never examined, and I also didn’t appreciate the emphasis on Obama in a positive light. He has made many promises regarding medical marijuana, etc. and yet he has ordered severe crackdowns on Calif. medical marijuana dispensaries, has had his justice dept. fight all cases to weaker sentencing and drug laws, and is currently working to support UN efforts to fight recent state victories in Washington and Colorado to practically legalize marijuana use. This of course despite his chronic use of the drug and cocaine when he was younger. The documentary painted a picture for black america and others that this was a man of hope when he is clearly just another pandering drug warrior like all the rest. It was great to see Clinton’s duplicity exposed as well as that of all the other presidents. This is clearly another outstanding example of the failure of government solutions to private problems.

  • David Liberty

    It would also have been nice to see the failure of prohibition and all of its identical consequences (violent crime, police corruption, family destruction, etc.) shown for historical reference though I very much appreciated the historical ties to racial hatred. Most anti-gun and marriage laws in the US also have their roots in racial fears and racial control – something that would also make a very revealing and shocking documentary.

  • scott lindsey

    good movie

  • Trish House

    What will solve this? I believe we need to radically change the structure of our society from the goal of growth and hoarding wealth to human rights and sustaining the environment that we all must live in. There are some simple steps to get us there the first of which is changing people’s minds to accept the new goals. The second is the action of rejection of the existing system which can be done by releasing the population from its obligation to and support of the existing system. Thus, a) call a debt jubilee on all debt, b) declare that through years of usury, exploitation, and graft we the People have long since PAID IN FULL for America and can claim it as ours. Thus the land, its resources, its government belong to US. With the assets in our hands we can start to build a new social design that includes the right of each of us to a free and a fair share of the land and its resources so each has the means to take care of themselves in safety.

    Instead of jobs we can organize ourselves to log and distribute the resources with the primary goal of ensuring that each person has food, a shelter and the means to make themselves self sustaining. We can form social groups that provide free education, free health care, and other services we deem necessary to keep life functioning in a safe and orderly fashion. But in the meantime we give each person full autonomy and freedom of his or her own living space and means of survival.

    Malcolm Gladwell in his book entitled The Tipping Point states ” If you want to bring a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior you need to create a community around them where those new beliefs can be practiced, and expressed, and nurtured.” The steps outlined above can take us there.