Capturing a Lost Moment of Hope in Africa

Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, 48, sits in a back booth at a restaurant in Los Angeles, hands clasped on the table before him. He is balding, circumspect, and his oval, copper-brown face is etched at the chin with a slight Vandyke beard. Dressed in a featureless black suit with his shirt collar open at the neck, Peck exudes the refinement and poise of a foreign minister, which he once was.

Peck is in town for the release of "Lumumba," his new feature film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday. "Lumumba" tells the story of Patrice Emery Lumumba, the first democratically elected head of government of the post-colonial Congo in 1960. Despite high hopes, Lumumba served only two months before he was forced from office, tortured and later assassinated. In the annals of African political lore, Lumumba occupies an iconic status.

The unlikely details of his biography read like a political Bible story, complete with the inauspicious beginnings of its charismatic hero and his public martyrdom in full view of his people. "One of the things that struck me about Lumumba was the dignity he had," Peck says. "As he was being led to his execution, people were slapping him, abusing him, and the two other prisoners were scared to death. They know they are going to die, but Lumumba is already somewhere else. He is above death. And he reminds me of the sentence Christ delivered about his killers, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'

"Lumumba inspired the same feelings in Africa that African Americans had in America with the new Kennedy era," Peck adds. "In the U.S. you had the civil rights movement going on, and in Africa in 1960 and '61, you had 25 African countries winning their independence. The whole world had hopes, and you had great leaders like Nasser in Egypt, Sekou Toure in Guinea and Nkrumah in Ghana speaking to Lumumba like big brothers. So he represented a moment of exhilaration. You felt as though you had a future and could aim towards something.

"When he was killed, many people became interested in politics for the first time, and there were demonstrations all over the world. This film attempts to capture that turning point in history, where everything was still possible for Africa."

It's hard to think of a filmmaker whose life and work better prepared him to tell the story of Lumumba than Peck. His secondary and college education took place in the Congo, France, the U.S. and Germany; but his artistic and cultural sensibilities were rooted in Haiti and the Congo. His family, educated, honored and bourgeois, was at the forefront of both nations' struggles for political coherence and independence.

Fluent in four languages (English, French, German and Spanish), Peck was trained as a filmmaker at the Film and Television Academy in Berlin. Adept at documentaries and features, he's been making gripping, politically themed films that have garnered critical notice since his first in 1988. This year, Human Rights Watch in New York gave Peck its lifetime achievement award.

"The kinds of films I make are not very often in the limelight," Peck acknowledges. "To be recognized by a very respectable organization worldwide is, of course, very important for me and my work because it helps my credibility and it enables me to do more."

It was his father who encouraged his boyhood aspirations to become a photographer. "My father equipped me with an 8-millimeter camera, so for me photography was a hobby that you have; but it wasn't a profession."

To foster his practical education, Peck moved to Germany and studied economics and industrial engineering. "I spent seven years studying that, plus economy and electronics," he says.

Peck began publishing photos and stories in German pop magazines on Berlin's vibrant jazz and movie scene. "I was supposed to be an engineer, but I was already involved with friends that were making movies. My girlfriend at the time was Safi Faye, the first African woman filmmaker. Safi had a contract with the UN to make a film and we all went to New York."

Peck had been offered a job in Manhattan, which fell through, and he wound up driving a taxi.

"That's when I decided I wanted to [make movies] professionally," Peck recalls. "After eight or 10 months driving a cab in New York, I went back to Berlin and enrolled in the Berlin Film and Television Academy." His student film "Haitian Corner" debuted in the Berlin Film Festival in 1988. "Haitian Corner" is about a political refugee who flees Haiti for exile in Brooklyn.

That film attracted the notice of Swiss producer Franck Hoffer. "He asked me if I'd like to do a script they had about Africa." The story presented to Peck was of a white doctor who goes to Africa to do something for the poor and gets himself into "a very strange personal story where he loses his mind," Peck says, then adds, "It was also a love story with a black woman [who] brings out, you know, the savage in him

It was only after he began reflecting on his past, and archiving the films and photos he had amassed depicting the political complexity of the Congo, did the true subject of his film emerge. "I did not think of Lumumba right away--I thought of the Congo, of my own mother and of my days growing up in the Congo. I began to write a draft of a letter to my producer to explain my connections to Africa, and I began to write about my mother and father and why we were in the Congo. When I finished the draft of this letter I knew, 'This is the film I must make.' "

To raise money for his feature, Peck decided to do a small documentary using the Congo material. He scripted a narrative for the footage he had compiled and shot additional footage based on the outline in his letter. Over time, his story grew from a personal narrative about growing up in the Congo into an intimate encounter with the flawed and complex hero at the heart of the national story.

Peck cut his finished product down to two reels, which he titled "Lumumba--Death of a Prophet." That remarkable work, a mere 69 minutes long, won the prize for best documentary in festivals in both Montreal and Paris, both in 1992.

During 1995-96, his career took an unexpected turn. He was asked to join the government of his political idol, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in his home country, Haiti. His family had fled Haiti's Duvalier regime when he was 8. Peck served as Haiti's minister of culture for two anguishing years before joining a mass Cabinet resignation. Peck then denounced his former mentor as a power-hungry despot. He wrote a tell-all expose alleging Aristide's corruption, and returned to his life as a filmmaker and his 10-year-old project, "Lumumba."

Peck's final script for "Lumumba," co-written with Pascal Bonitzer, was completed in 1999. "We knew it would be a difficult film to make, [and] we would have some opposition. We listed all our available resources, point by point, and came up with a figure and said: This is what the film has to cost, no matter what. We decided that the film we made had to look like Spielberg, only without Spielberg's budget.

"So we pushed everything to fit our budget ....It had to be a period piece, with vintage cars, lots of extras traveling back and forth from Belgium and France, and three months of shooting. We didn't shoot one extra day. The production values that you finally see on screen were, for us, worth $15 [million] or $20 million. But we shot this film for $4 million."

Peck's international cast is anchored by Eriq Ebouaney, who plays Lumumba; Alex Descas is the suave and demonic Mobutu Sese Seko, and Maka Kotto is the hapless leader in Lumumba's shadow, Congolese President Joseph Kasa Vubu.

Filmed on location in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Belgium, Peck meticulously re-created Lumumba's time and political milieu, restaging well-known scenes from newsreel accounts and official photographs of actual events. For his soundtrack, Peck rerecorded hit Congolese pop songs that Lumumba (and he) danced to in the '60s, including the infectious theme song of the period, "The Independence Cha-Cha-Cha."

Peck has developed an unusual method for rendering cinematic truth. "There are always two sides to truth, the documentary side and the fiction side. If you see my documentaries and my fiction, they are somehow similar in that they are always close to reality," Peck says. "I cannot deal with fiction as something that is up in the air without any relation with reality. So all my fiction films are always [grounded] in reality, real characters, real things that happened to me. And my documentaries always include a story line. That's why I can go from one to the other. There is not a hierarchy for me between documentaries and fiction."

One example of Peck's approach to cinematic authenticity comes in a scene in "Lumumba" he invented to show the emotional ambiguities that emerge in the moments leading to a coup. The scene comes just before Lumumba is betrayed by the young journalist-turned-soldier Mobutu, whom Lumumba has mentored.

Mobutu has become part of his mentor's inner circle--even acting as a surrogate uncle to Lumumba's adolescent daughter, Juliana. The Belgian colonial regime has just abandoned the capital, removing everything portable, including the knobs on the doors. Mobutu, who is pondering the treason that will assure his mentor's death and his own ascendancy, encounters Juliana in a hallway. She smiles and waves at him, and Mobutu proffers her a slight, vacuous smile.

"That was something that I experienced as a minister in Haiti," Peck says. "When you are [part of] a whole group of ministers and you see each other almost every day and you go through very hard moments, it becomes something like friendship. So if you become political enemies, how do you face those who were close to you when you encounter them on the street? How far will human beings go to destroy each other--for ambition, for politics, for power--when the most important things are the human links between them?"

Just before his film was released in Europe last year, the ghastly details of Lumumba's murder began to appear in the news in Africa and Europe. "One of the cops who was charged with disposing [of] the body wrote a book," Peck explains. "They were totally convinced they did the heroic thing. Now a parliamentary commission has been formed in Belgium. It is supposed to find the responsibility of the Belgium government in the assassination....They have begun [interrogating] witnesses."

The Belgium government had to form the commission, Peck believes, because of the 1999 publication of "The Murder of Lumumba," by Belgian sociologist Ludo de Witte. The work, just published in English (see Book Review, Page 12), is an exhaustive reexamination of the international web of intrigue surrounding the Lumumba assassination.

Peck's film opens with a visually powerful montage. Lumumba, beaten but unbowed, is mentally reciting a letter written to his wife as he is being driven to his death. Says Peck, "The last words of Lumumba in the film are: 'We have to write our history ourselves.' This film is about that too."

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday July 26, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction Photo caption--A caption accompanying a film story on Congo's Patrice Emery Lumumba in the July 15 Sunday Calendar misidentified the man next to him in a 1960 photo. It was Secretary of State Christian Herter. For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction Photo caption--A caption accompanying a film story on Congo's Patrice Emery Lumumba in the July 15 Sunday Calendar misidentified the man next to him in a 1960 photo. It was Secretary of State Christian Herter.
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