Citizen of the World: A Conversation with Director Raoul
by Aaron Krach
The Margaret Mead Film Festival, held each November in New York City, is
recognized for bringing together under-recognized documentary filmmakers
from around the world. No longer satisfied with offering only a venue
in Manhattan, the fest takes a series of films on the road as a touring
festival. During 1999, The Traveling Mead Fest will visit eleven
cities, beginning this Friday at Louis and Clark College in Portland,
Oregon, then moving onto other venues, from Berkeley, California to
Included in this year’s tour is Raoul Peck, the Haitian director who was
featured in a retrospective during last years fest. Born in Haiti,
brought up in Zaire and educated in Germany; Peck is a true citizen of
the world. He divides his time between Europe and America; including a
recent stint serving as the Minister of Culture in Haiti. Over the past
15 years, his films have included short experimental works,
politically-charged documentaries and unconventional features. His
narrative-feature, “Man by The Shore” was the first Haitian film to be
theatrically released in the United States.
A film based on Russell Bank’s novel “Continental Drift” starring Willem
Dafoe recently collapsed after several years of development. Peck is
moving on, nonetheless. This spring, he will begin principle photography
on a feature about Lumumba, a political martyr in Zaire. On his way back
to Paris, Peck sat down with indieWIRE to talk about fiction and
documentary, text and image, and his intriguing career.
indieWIRE: During the last several years, you have gone back and forth
between documentary and fiction with apparent ease. Have you always felt
comfortable in both formats?
Raoul Peck: My first films were essay films, all with images and text,
dialogue and montage. That is the main constant in my work. My
documentaries are very fictionalized. They all have story lines and
fictive characters. And my fiction is all based on real stories, real
events, real experiences I’ve had. So for me it isn’t’ very different.
It is a matter of what is the best, appropriate form for a feeling I
iW: In both genres you exposed intense vulnerability from your subjects
and actors. Do you have different strategies for directing a documentary
interview vs. an actor in a feature?
Peck: It’s the same work. You have to establish a human relationship,
not a hierarchical relationship. You really have to break right away any
relation that is based on class or gender. You have to find, from the
beginning a way to have a deeper human relationship. Then of course the
people are more open. Some of them in the documentaries, I had to meet
them several times to convince them that I was not against them or that
they would not get hurt emotionally. I do the same thing with my actors.
I need a very strong intimacy with the actors. The result of that is I
still have very good relationships with the actors from my films. I have
a family from “Man by the Shore.” They meet and go to each others’
birthdays and they know everything about each other. It’s like a family
iW: You have called you first films “essays,” and I noticed that one of
the recurring motifs throughout your films are letters and journeys.
Peck: I would say words, written words. The text are important because
it gives me a tremendous freedom. Because I change them while I’m
editing, and the editing influences the text. It’s always a work in
process. Also, how I tell the text is important. Most of my films in
film school were exercises with the relationship between the image, the
text and the voice — the tone of the voice. The speaker voice is
something I hate totally, because it takes away a certain intimacy. But
if the voice is somehow a fictional voice it gives a totally different
feel. So I usually speak the text myself or get an actor, not a speaker.
In Germany you have professional speakers, but I never use them. I take
an actor because he needs to play a role. The voice is not neutral. It’s
something that film after film I develop and feel very comfortable with.
iW: Critics have related the fragmented voices in your films to African
Oral Tradition. As a white viewer, my initial connection to it was
through post-modernism. Do you trace your influences to either?
Peck: When I stated making films, I was closer to Godard than Africa. I
was fascinated by the voice and the written word. Consciously it doesn’t
come from the African tradition. Maybe some of the way I tell stories
comes from the Haitian tradition of telling tales.
iW: Living in so many different countries and making films in several
languages, what kind of audience are you thinking about when making your
Peck: I consider myself first of all an artist. My work is about my
creativity — why I create and not for whom. I hope to touch as many
people as possible. My concern is not to be marginalized and at the same
time not to compromise. I’m between those two lines. As many people can
see my work, is as happy as I am. I was lucky enough to make my films
without having commercial goals. I do have to make sure I have the money
to make my films, but it’s not about whether they are going to make
iW: By turning your camera into some very poor corners of the world, it
brings up many questions about technology and power. In “Dialogue with
Death” you interviewed some people who will probably never be able to
ever see the film. How do you feel about that situation and do you ever
try and show them the films?
Peck: I try, but that is not always possible in a country like Haiti. I
created a foundation and it has a cinema, but it hasn’t opened yet. We
are still working on it. You know, showing it to the people is almost a
nice gesture, but I think I would be more fulfilled than the people
themselves. So it’s not something I’m going to fight for. If I can do
it, I will do it, but more important is the relationship I keep with the
people. That is important to me. I never go to places without any sort
of long term commitment. Most of the time there are people preparing for
me. Especially for “Dialogue,” which was shot during the military
dictatorship, I had to be in a totally protected area. I had to know,
and the people had so be secure. Not because they were going to say
anything subversive, but because of the presence of a camera and a
foreign crew is suspect. I had to be sure to select the right people to
be able to shoot in total freedom and security.
iW: What’s next for Raoul Peck?
Peck: I am remaking “Lumumba,” as a narrative feature. It is my heaviest
project to date. It’s a long project; I wrote the first draft nine years
ago. We are going to shoot in Belgium, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It’s
financed already, just a matter of getting the crew. The casting is
almost finished. After that, we’ll see. I’m not eager anymore to make a
film every year. I want to write more and maybe to make a bigger film
every five years.