Raoul Peck: A Vision of His Own

Since the release of his latest feature film, Lumumba, director Raoul Peck’s star has been rapidly rising

  • Photograph by Eric Macnatt
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  • African Independents: Alex Descas as Joseph Mobutu, Theophile Sowie as Maurice Mpolo, and Eriq Ebouaney as Patrice Lumumba. Photograph by Francoise Hugaux/ Courtesy JBA Production/ Velvetfilm
  • Peck with late Barbadian theatre director Earl Warner and Derek Walcott at Carifesta '95 in Trinidad. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell
  • A scene from Lumumba. Photograph by Tusha Basto/ Courtesy JBA Production/ Velvetfilm
RAOUL PECK (Photo credit:  Edison Sánchez)

One of the landmark moments in Caribbean cinema took place in Martinique in 1988. The occasion was the first Images Caraïbes Film Festival, an ambitious undertaking which would go through another couple of editions before buckling under the sheer weight of its own aspirations. As far as I know, the event, which unfolded over several days in Fort-de-France, was the first-ever gathering of filmmakers from the Caribbean and its diaspora, and in a perfect world it would have been a reunion of old friends and collaborators.

But in fact most of the attendees were meeting for the first time, though in many cases they recognised each other’s names, and all acknowledged a definite kinship. It was an understandably emotional moment. In any gathering of committed filmmakers there will be talk of the difficulties encountered in getting work produced, but this event had the added ingredient of profound expressions of isolation and alienation, nostalgia for countries left behind, the heartbreaking joy of finally meeting long-lost kin.

Many of these filmmakers lived and worked in far-flung places like London and Paris and Amsterdam, and with notable exceptions like some of the Cuban participants, or like Euzhan Palcy — who already had the film Sugar Cane Alley under her belt — most were largely unknown in their home countries. Some, like Trinidad-born Horace Ové, a pioneer of black British cinema, had a significant body of work behind them; or, like Palcy, a notable film. For others, the big work or works lay in the future: it would be another two years, for instance, before Curaçaon filmmaker Felix de Rooy would make Ava and Gabriel, another three before Haitian director Raoul Peck would complete his landmark documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet.

Of those who attended the 1988 gathering, Peck has emerged as the one most favoured by history and circumstance. Which is not to say that the journey hasn’t been long and hard. But regardless of the reasons or conditions, it’s safe to say that no Caribbean filmmaker has achieved more in the past decade than Raoul Peck.

It is April 2001, and Peck and I, both attendees at the St Barts Film Festival, have taken time out to chat before the group sits down to a long, leisurely lunch — probably of something like warm goat-cheese salad, punctuated by wine and rhum vanille and ‘ti ponches. Lumumba, Peck’s fourth feature, is the festival’s opening film, and the screening that night will be followed by a lengthy Q&A session. Members of the audience will ask how he conducted his research (the answer is painstakingly: he even had the two men who hacked Lumumba’s body to death interviewed), where it was filmed (Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Belgium), and how much it cost to make (US$4 million), and he’s particularly amused by a Frenchwoman who gets up and says, “Young man, I salute you on a job well done.”

When the film opens in the US, a few months later, New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell will call it an “engrossing, fleet biographical feature”. The Hollywood Reporter will describe it as “Brilliant. Utterly absorbing,” and Variety will call it “rare and significant”. The Chicago Tribune will describe it as “a historical movie drama that paints its subject with keen analytical rigor but doesn’t sap it of life”. Lumumba will win the Best Feature award at the 2001 Pan African Film festival, and when it airs on HBO during Black History Month in February 2002, the broadcast will be prefaced by interviews with Halle Berry, rapper Mos Def, and star-boy academics Henry Louis Gates Jr and Cornel West.

“I wanted to do a big milestone film,” Peck says, “an epic film about this great person who was Patrice Lumumba, to tell his story and to show our own story through other eyes, through a certain point of view. Because there are no films that, on this level, tell our stories. “Try to give me one example besides Spike Lee’s Malcolm X,” Peck challenges. Of course I can’t. “But even Malcolm X for me is very American,” he continues. “In spite of Spike’s unmistakably original style, it’s still embedded in the Hollywood style of storytelling.”

That the biggest “Caribbean” film of recent times is a biopic about an African statesman who held power for only two months may seem ironic
to those who missed out on the debates on What Is A Caribbean Film? that form a part of the programme at every gathering of Caribbean film types. (Not that those who’ve attended have the answer either, but they’ve at least heard most of the arguments). The important point is really that, even when his work is not directly about the Caribbean, concerns of relevance to this region naturally — and profoundly — inform Raoul Peck’s work. And thanks to the success of Lumumba, he’s the most recognised Caribbean filmmaker in the world today. Peck’s achievements — four feature films (two of which have premiered at Cannes), several award-winning documentaries, plus an 18-month spell as minister of culture in Haiti (which he says almost ended his filmmaking career) — are remarkable by Caribbean standards; indeed, by the standards of any filmmaker tackling challenging (and unpopular) subjects like political oppression in Haiti and African geopolitics. Patrice Lumumba, who became the first elected head of the newly independent Congo (today called Congo Kinshasa) in 1960, is in fact part of Raoul Peck’s personal history, though in a rather oblique way.

Born in Haiti in 1953, Peck left that country at age nine for the Congo, where his father had secured a teaching contract. The former Belgian Congo at the time was an important refuge for educated Haitians fleeing the dictatorship of President François Duvalier. The Belgian colonists had left the country without a professional class, and Haitians were being employed by the fledgling independence government to replace the Belgian cadres.

Peck’s father, an agronomist and coffee farmer, had been arrested twice in Haiti by Duvalierist thugs who accused him of inciting coffee exporters to strike. “He thought maybe he would not have got off as easy the third time,” Peck says. Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961. By the time Peck arrived in the Congo in 1963, the statesman of the moment was the infamous Mobutu Sese Seko, who seized total power in 1965. For the young Haitian and his playmates in the privileged expatriate community in Léopoldville, Mobutu was something of a hero. “He was a handsome guy,” Peck recalls, “and he used to talk almost every day on TV and had very good propagandists. We’d see him on Sunday when we would go to the cinema to see the local newsreels, and it was always about him going here, there, going to some military campaign or jumping in parachutes. “For us young kids he was a sort of Rambo-type figure.”

Peck’s happy childhood in the Congo ended when he was sent away to school in France at age 12. He went on to university in Berlin, where he spent seven years studying engineering and economics. He then moved to New York to await a job with the United Nations. Had the UN not been experiencing budgetary problems at the time, it’s possible that Raoul Peck might today be enjoying a nice career as a senior UN official, but the job never materialised, and in the year he spent in New York Peck earned a living as a taxi driver and made some radical adjustments to his career plans.

On returning to Berlin in 1981 he applied to the highly competitive German Film and Television Academy. Peck was one of 18 applicants accepted at the Academy, which he describes as “a very political place,” though he says he had been radicalised long before that. “When I went into film school I knew already what I wanted. I was already coming from a whole type of organisation of political militants. The film school part was the fun part, where I was just totally dedicated to making films and writing.” While still a student, Peck completed his first full-length feature, Haitian Corner, shot in Brooklyn and Haiti for a meagre US$150,000.

Peck’s next major film was the project that would first introduce him to Patrice Lumumba, whom (thanks to the success of Mobutu’s propaganda machine) he confesses he knew little about up till then. The film that would eventually morph into the experimental documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, in fact started out as a fiction project. In the process of his research, however, Peck found himself unearthing deeply personal material, including photos and letters belonging to his mother, who in her Congo days had worked for the mayor of Léopoldville. “Without being aware of it,” he says, “I was doing research for another film. The producer I was working with was flexible enough to accept the idea to do a documentary, even though at the time we thought it would be film that we would finance very quickly and then get some money to develop the fiction film.”

According to Peck, the project became “heavier and heavier, more difficult and more interesting and more complex.” And they soon ran out of money. A German network offered funding on condition that they film in the Congo, but the money came with strings attached. “Their only motive was to get images of the Congo,” Peck says, “at the time it was very difficult to go there. Mobutu was very wild and especially against journalists and filmmaking, so they were almost sending me there as a guinea pig.”

Peck eventually found a creative solution to the problem of doing a film about Lumumba without visiting the Congo. On learning that the slain statesman never had a grave, he unearthed a bit of Congolese lore which said that the spirits of people who were not properly buried continued to roam freely. The premise of Death of a Prophet is that Lumumba’s soul is still wandering the streets of Brussels, in search of peace. “It made sense in terms of the story, the content, the aesthetic and the location and it brought the film to another level.”

Peck returned to Haitian subject matter in his next film, The Man on the Shore, which premiered at Cannes in 1993 (the first Caribbean film to be so honoured). The harrowing story of a family’s victimisation at the hands of Duvalierist thugs seen through the eyes of a young girl was a critical success worldwide, though it wasn’t released in the US till 1996.

By then, Raoul Peck’s life had taken an unexpected turn. In 1996 he assumed the post of minister of culture in Haiti. The appointment had in fact been some years in the making: since Peck started returning to Haiti around 1986, it had been suggested on several occasions that he should become directly involved in politics. “It’s like you talk and you never know if people are totally serious,” Peck says. “And you yourself don’t know if you’re totally serious, but you don’t say No, and after that the next question is When? And then you find that that means you have said Yes. The other thing is that, as a “political” filmmaker, at some point you start to feel like you’re just talking, and you ask yourself questions about your own credibility.”

Peck became minister of culture in the government of Prime Minister Rosny Smarth in February 1996, but resigned 18 months later, deeply disillusioned with the Haitian political process and in particular with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He describes the experience passionately in Monsieur le Ministre . . . Jusqu’au bout de la patience, a book he published in 1998, which unfortunately was never translated into English and is now out of print.

Since leaving politics, Peck has been characteristically busy, completing, in addition to Lumumba, a made-for-TV movie and a 52-minute documentary critiquing the politics of globalisation. He’s also served as President of the Fond Sud, a French government intiative which funds film production in the developing world. But most important has been success of Lumumba in the United States, which has made it possible for Peck to re-visit one of his long-time projects, an adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel Continental Drift. He’s also signed with HBO for two projects: a film revisiting the Rwanda genocide starring Danny Glover, and an adaptation of another Banks novel, Cloudsplitter, to be produced by Martin Scorsese.

I ask whether he was at all concerned about taking on another big African story, and he says, “yes, initially. But once I started work on it, talking with Rwandan friends and actually going there and visiting Kigali and Arusha [site of the international tribunal], the importance of this story and its ethical, historical and political signficance dawned on me. This was the most rapid and dramatic human catastrophe of the end of the 20th century. More than 1 million people were killed in just 100 days, and nobody did a thing. So much for ‘Never Again.’”

Other awards:

  • 1994 Nestor Almendros Prize, Human Rights Watch
  • 2001 Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award, Human Rights Watch
  • Honor and Merit Order, Haiti
  • Order of Arts and Literature, France

In addition to his films, and certain development projects initiated during his tenure as minister of culture, Raoul Peck has also made an impact on the Haitian cultural scene in the form of the Fondation Forum Eldorado, a foundation for the promotion of audio-visual and performing arts, which he co-founded in 1996. The centrepiece of the foundation is a restored movie theatre in Port-au-Prince, which offers programmes for local artists and schools.