IFFR 2022 review: Life of Crime 1984-2020 (Jon Alpert)

Life of Crime 1984-2020 should be a required watch for teenagers before they start being subjected to that pain, but also for the politicians that are in the position to change the grind that causes it.”

“I don’t want my life to be like this.”

Drug addiction is a lifelong disease from which there never truly is recovery. Watching Life of Crime 1984-2020, the latest (and no doubt longest gestating) work of award-winning and Oscar nominated investigative journalist and documentary maker Jon Alpert, leaves no room for other conclusions. Chronicling almost four decades in the lives of three people in the underbelly of Newark, New Jersey (although focusing mostly on the first 20-odd years), the film is an incredibly intimate and confronting look at the pitfalls of heroin and other substance abuse and the lives it impacts, not only of the addicts themselves but also those surrounding them. Including footage from two earlier documentaries on the same subject, 1989’s One Year in a Life of Crime and 1998’s Life of Crime 2, this final instalment brings closure to the stories of Deliris Vasquez, Robert Steffey, and Freddie Rodriguez in a sobering and searing manner, ending on a gut punch that will break most audiences.

Robert, Freddie, and Deliris are three friends from a working-class background in the Newark of the mid-’80s. In line with the zeitgeist of the era, in which making money was seen as the biggest goal in life, but which also was the era in which growing financial inequality between the working classes and the rich upper crust they were taught to look up to was kickstarted, their lives revolve around a constant hustle. Drugs shape their decisions, as they need the almighty dollar to feed their habit, a habit started to drown out the misery. Robert and Freddie are partners in crime, shoplifting in broad daylight and with jaw-dropping insolence, Alpert’s camera in close proximity. Deliris has to turn to the world’s oldest profession to make her dough. Over the course of the film and the following decades, the bravura of their early 20s makes way for an ever-increasing despair and despondency as their lives become an endless cyclical journey through prison, rehab, parole meetings, and periods of hope, without exception dashed when the lure of the needle sooner or later pulls them back down.

Building up a genuine friendship over the years with the people he follows, nothing is off limits when it comes to Alpert’s access to their lives, which means we’re privy to some of the most intimate (and in some cases gruesome) moments: several scenes of somebody shooting up, Deliris dealing with a regular john, heart-wrenching conversations between a mother and her six-year-old child, the aftermath of a high. A lot of this is painful to watch, especially with the two kids of Robert and Deliris around. As the years go by, we see the three slide further down after every brief period of cleaning themselves up. The film necessarily focuses on Deliris towards the end, because the two men died before Alpert started filming again, which goes to show that for many addicts there are two possible outcomes in life: jail, or death.

Spanning such a long period gives insight into societal changes over time, yet also into things that never change. Some changes are frivolous, such as hairstyles and clothes; others are more impactful, such as Freddie contracting AIDS during the epidemic in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What doesn’t change though is the lack of a support system for addicts. Well-meaning parole officers do what they can to treat symptoms, but the film shows that it is far too easy to fall back after a period of being clean. This problem is compounded by American drug laws, where possession and/or failing a drug test leads to another stint in jail, time and time again. Drug addiction is a lifelong disease, but it’s not one America seems to want to cure.

Life of Crime 1984-2020 isn’t an easy watch, and some images will be seared into your mind. Images of Robert lying down in the middle of the street, completely strung out on heroin and barely able to move, or his decomposing corpse found in his own home after an overdose. These images are shocking, and they show Alpert’s background as a war zone reporter with a history that goes as far back as documenting the aftermath of the Vietnam War in 1977. But this time the war zone is on home soil and as the film makes clear, like in Vietnam this war is a losing one. Other scenes are heartbreaking, most notably the scene between Deliris and her two children, daughter Kiki and son Chimo. The conversations with Kiki, out of necessity a child wise beyond her age, and the way she confronts her mother are soul shattering. The one glimmer of hope to be extracted from Life of Crime 1984-2020 is how the end of the film shows that a child’s love endures, and that even growing up around addiction doesn’t necessarily lead to repeating the same mistakes. But these are small victories in a losing war in which people at the bottom of society look to narcotics as a way to ease the pain that a grinding, money-focused society inflicts upon them. Life of Crime 1984-2020 should be a required watch for teenagers before they start being subjected to that pain, but also for the politicians that are in the position to change the grind that causes it.