A few years ago, I noticed the American investigative journalist and documentarian Jon Alpert for the extraordinary documentary “Cuba and the Cameraman”. It was a film that showed life in Cuba in an incredible way during the 45 years that Alpert went there and filmed people first as a journalist and then as a documentarian. Ever since the beginning of the seventies, Alpert traveled to various parts of the world as a journalist and reported from Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, China, the Philippines and Afghanistan, and he was more interested in the fates of ordinary people than standard political topics. We could see this perfectly in “Cuba and the Cameraman” where he returned to the same people over several decades and through their examples we could perhaps best understand what life in Cuba under Fidel Castro looked like during all those years.
As the very name of the documentary “Life of Crime 1984-2020” suggests, it is a film that was also created over an extremely long period of time, but this time he did not have to go so far from New York where he lives. In this equally impressive and shocking documentary, he followed the lives and destinies of three residents of Newark, New Jersey for more than 35 years. And this documentary begins with a completely unreal and insane scene as it follows one of the three protagonists as they shoplift. This is actually just the beginning of this disturbing, tragic and terrifying story about the lives of three petty criminals and drug addicts – Freddie Rodriguez, Robert Steffey and Deliris Vasquez. They are all young people in the beginning, in their early twenties (Deliris even younger), and Alpert has been recording what was happening in their lives for years.
Unfortunately, there is little that is good because all of them will get stuck not only in crime, but also in drugs (Deliris and in prostitution), and here we get a not at all censored insight into the lives of people from the very bottom of society. It never ceases to fascinate me how people like this can even let someone get so close to them because Alpert not only films them in the act of crime, but also while they are doing drugs, while they are in prison, while they are at their lowest points in life. One after another, there are completely surreal and unreal situations that one would think were possible only in feature films. These people go to prisons and get out and end up behind bars again, and they all think and plan to change their lives even though it is obvious that such a thing is probably not possible.
This is perhaps the best and most complete representation of that lowlife America where people’s lives are probably destined to be drug addicts and criminals, so one of the protagonists at one point says, well, all my friends are junkies and thieves, so how can I be expected to be different. What kind of lives are constantly hanging in the balance and it’s quite clear that it can’t end well for any of them. Although initially following the lives of such people who act almost borderline retarded may seem exploitative, Alpert was able to use their examples to show the entire disaster of today’s America and society in which it is completely normal for there to be countless people like Freddie, Rob and Deliris.
This film actually began to be made at the end of the eighties when Alpert was filming a documentary for HBO about people involved in crime, and the first part of the film was shown at the end of the eighties. However, it is obvious that over the years the author has connected with these people and that he cares about them and is extremely empathetic towards them and he himself tries to help them finally try to get their lives on the right path. However, it doesn’t just go that way and they all have in common that they constantly stumble again and end up in even worse stages than before. Thus, we first meet Rob as a kid who steals from stores, and when he gets hooked on heroin and his criminal activities, he will become more and more serious and violent. Freddie will even become infected with HIV thanks to heroin, but that won’t stop him from shooting, while we initially meet Deliris as Rob’s girlfriend who, as a teenager with three children, is already a heavy addict, then a prostitute.
Although most of the film takes place in the eighties and nineties, and the ending seems somehow rushed, it is an impressive and deeply disturbing, terrible story. Alpert may have initially had the idea to make a film about the criminal underworld of Newark and the lives of criminals, but “Life of Crime” turned into a film about how hard drug addiction directs and determines the lives of Americans. All of them have in common that they want to put themselves in order, to even clean themselves up when they end up in prison, but problems arise once they get out again. It is fascinating how, in those first moments after leaving, all of them are convinced that they are turning over a new page and that drug use is over, and when Alpert returns with the camera in a month or a year, we see them unrecognizable, broken. This documentary seems to raise the question of whether they are solely to blame for all of this, or whether the environment or the system in which they live is also partly to blame, and how difficult it is to get out of all that when someone falls into a centrifuge.