Documentary Film Review: THE HOUSE I LIVE IN (Directed by Eugene Jarecki)

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by Tony Frankel on February 26, 2013

in CD-DVD,Film


As with any empire which has come before, America has a nasty habit of singling out groups of its denizens to bear the blame for the country’s ills.  Since landing in Virginia over 400 years ago, fringe groups and individuals have been chosen by the powers that be as the scapegoat when times are tough. Americans scoff at Germans for being so taken in by Hitler’s illogical denunciation of Jews, but fear and mistrust are the greatest tools to control a populace; therefore, American politicians have become pros at generating fear amongst the American people.  When threatening or inexplicable circumstances occur, the blame is usually placed on a minority:  When the country becomes overcrowded, blame illegals and Californians; when a child is stillborn in 1600’s Salem, blame the witches; when Russia begins a nuclear buildup, blame artists who have attended a Communist Party meeting; when morals are on the decline, blame abortionists and gays.

But whom do we blame for the drug problem? Wait, do we have a drug problem? We must, or obviously there wouldn’t be a “war on drugs.” We have all heard of this war, but can you articulate exactly what it entails?  How much of the war on drugs, would you suppose, is actually about drugs?

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of THIS IS THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

In Eugene Jarecki’s compact, personal, illustrative, and illuminating new documentary, The House I Live In, you will get an answer to these questions; but be aware that once these riddles are solved, you will now comprehend the byzantine madness and fear that promulgates the very problems we are trying to eradicate. And that madness and fear, which has existed since man became a communal beast, will always be in existence. The most important lesson to take from this thrilling film is that you do not have to buy into the propaganda bestowed on you by politicians, the media, or any other dominant force in our society. In documenting not just the evolution of this so-called war, but the emergent war on this war, Jarecki can count himself among the most insightful of American historians.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of THIS IS THE HOUSE I LIVE IN
Equal parts investigative journalism, storytelling, and discourse on social psychology, The House I Live In (written by Jarecki as well) is not concerned with innovative filmmaking; there are no technical bells and whistles employed to ensure that his call-to-arms resonates with the viewer. In fact, the structure just may remind you of the best that PBS’ Frontline produces. But the documentary powerfully reverberates with us because the irrefutable facts which are disclosed about this ridiculous phenomenon are wrapped within a narrative about Nannie Jeter, the black housekeeper who became a second mother to Jarecki.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of THIS IS THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

As a youth, Jarecki imagined that the civil rights movement would cement a future of racial equality, yet he later discovered that Nannie’s family got caught in a new battle of racial inequality while Jarecki himself “found privilege and opportunity.”  When Nannie is interviewed, she blames the plight of her family on the rise of drugs in America.  As the filmmaker questions drug abuse experts, law enforcement officers, prisoners, dealers, and more, it becomes clear that the drug policies in America are based on rhetoric, not statistics.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of THIS IS THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

Even with the director’s physical presence in the film and man-on-the-street interviews, the sense is not that we are watching a movie, but observing the unfolding of history.  Jarecki’s unobtrusive style (as opposed to Michael Moore’s) has us blissfully unaware that a technical team even exists.  This elucidates the mastery of those who are in service to the film’s basic message: the war on drugs has become an infinite apparatus used to suckle the power from both America’s poor and her minority communities.  The inconspicuous specialists behind the camera include Editor Paul Frost, Directors of Photography Sam Cullman and Derek Hallquist, Composer Robert Miller, Archive Producer Daniel DiMauro, and Researchers Shirel Kozak, Christopher St. John, Meg Charlton, Anoosh Tertzakian, Patrick O’Brian, Nora Colie, and Julia Simpson.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of THIS IS THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

The drug war, as much a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a mystery as is the Kennedy assassination, is blessedly less difficult to comprehend thanks to Jarecki. With doctors handing out prescription medicines as easily as vendors on an ice cream truck distribute their wares, the accessibility of drugs never has been and never will be the issue.  In fact, a fascinating coda to my newfound grasp of all things “war on drugs” occurred when the lights came up in the theater: laying at my feet was a tiny glass pipe which, filled with a new sense of hope, I shamelessly pocketed.

photos by Derek Hallquist and Samuel Cullman

The House I Live In
distributed by Abramorama
running time: 108 minutes / not rated
now available on VOD at Film Buff
for info on the film, visit

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