INTERVIEW: "Lumumba" Redux; Peck Returns to Congo for Epic Bio-Pic
by Anaye Milligan
(indieWIRE/ 07.02.01) — Patrice Lumumba was the first (and only) freely elected prime minister of the African nation of Congo. A handsome, charismatic leader, Lumumba’s rise to power was a triumph over European colonialism for millions around the world. But just two months later, control of the country was seized by a treacherous military commander, Joseph Mobutu. With tacit support from France, Belgium and the United States, Mobutu’s forces kidnapped, tortured and murdered Patrice Lumumba. And Congo has not known a single free election since. Raoul Peck’s impressive new film “Lumumba” examines the final years of Patrice Lumumba, as he comes to national prominence and becomes Congo’s Prime Minister to his gruesome end. Beautifully shot and masterfully edited, Peck’s film explores how corruption, greed and American and European powers set the stage for Lumumba’s downfall.
Peck recently talked to indieWIRE about what attracted him to Lumumba, how he managed to convert historical facts into a gripping story, and the challenges of working in a third world country under the pressures of a tight budget.
indieWIRE: When did you first become interested in Patrice Lumumba?
Raoul Peck: I would say that he is part of the story of my youth. I went to Congo with my parents who were both school teachers in 1961-1962. My father had to leave Haiti because he was arrested twice. And at that same time, the Congolese government and the UN were looking for professionals to come to Congo because the Belgians had left Congo and there was a great need. And so he decided to go there. My father stayed there for more than thirty years, and so I was familiar with the Congo and it’s history. It became like my second country. And when I was approached by a producer with a script set in Africa that I didn’t really like, I thought, “Well, why not work on something that I know?”
iW: “Lumumba” is your second film about this man. Ten years ago you did a documentary about him. Why did you want to return to the same historical character again in a narrative format?
Peck: People always ask me that question. But the original project [the documentary] was always a feature film. And when I started research for the feature I was writing pages and pages and I realized that I was writing for another film. I was creating a film about discovering my own family in Congo and my own memories in Congo. And I rediscovered pictures my mother took and 8mm films my father shot. So all of this brought up a lot for me and the documentary is an expression of my personal relationship to Congo. For me the documentary and the feature film are two different stories. And when I came back to the feature film it was a very direct confrontation with the man Lumumba himself.
iW: Given that Lumumba is a historical retelling of real events that most audiences are not familiar with, how do you balance the need to educate viewers and be true to history, as was necessary with the documentary, with the need to tell a compelling story?
Peck: There are two things. First, I have always, from the beginning of my filmmaking career, believed that we can make films that are real films and are entertaining films that still say something more. I have always tried to put content in my work. It is a consistent challenge. The second thing is that this is probably one of the very rare cases where the story of Lumumba is already a political thriller. So it was such a rich story that we could have done three times as much as the two hours of this film. It had so many layers and there were so many ways to approach it and so many characters. It was a very complex story. So I didn’t have to invent characters; on the contrary, I had to take out characters and leave out events. But I found that by exploring the history so thoroughly and being very close to the facts, I found my own path to freedom of interpretation.
iW: One thing I found very interesting in this film is this: You have a Black lead, in a French speaking film set in a third world country. And you don’t even have a secondary White character in the way that many other films set in Africa and intended for an international audience do, like “Cry Freedom,” for example. How much of that was conscious on your part?
Peck: First of all, it was clear to me from the very beginning that I could not make this film if I did not take African actors and use them in the central roles, especially to accurately relate the life of Lumumba. Second, although we may have wanted a larger budget for an international production, we wanted to have complete control of the film. I did not want to make any concessions.
So we wrote down on a sheet of paper all our potential sources of financing in Europe and in the United States under those restrictions. And we decided to make the film only with that — which means that we had to put everything at the surface. We had to work very closely with this tight budget. Fortunately most of the sources were people I had gotten money from before, who knew my work and were more likely to be partners in this project. So indeed, we didn’t have to face the normal problem of having to create a very important White role to lead the story in the film like “Cry Freedom,” for example, which is not a film about Steve Biko, but about the White journalist. And that was the kind of approach I refused from the beginning. So we had to be very creative in our ways of making this four million dollar movie look as if were done for 15 or 20. And of course I had a very great crew, very good actors so having those people with me made a fantastic difference and it was a team effort that made it possible to pull this off. And also it was very important to have Africans, local people, involved. Since it was a period piece we needed their help in finding the uniforms and the automobiles and so forth. And we needed them as extras and stunt people and they were very helpful.
iW: Is there any advice you could give to independent filmmakers looking to shoot a film in a third world country?
Peck: It will depend on the range and the scope of the film you are doing. And is it a documentary or a feature? But the main thing I would say is to know the place you are going. Know it’s history and it’s people and it’s politics. And make sure that you have people there who can really be on your side. People who can open the doors for you and give you strong, good advice. Make sure that the people you are going to deal with understand your project. Make sure that you make them a part of your work. It is important that you don’t just come there and shoot and leave. You must establish a link with the people and the country. You must really know the country you are going to. You also have to show some sensibility and sensitivity about how people there live and what their limitations are. You must be aware of what your crew is bringing that may be unfamiliar to the people there.
iW: One last question. Lumumba makes a prediction about a unified Africa and a Congo that will know peace and prosperity. Of course this doesn’t come to pass and The Congo suffers the next 30 years under the tyranny of Joseph Mobutu. And I thought about all the troubling elements your film explores, from corruption in the government to tribalism to exploitation by “first world” powers and I was reminded of a cover story in The Economist that simply read, “Africa – The Hopeless Continent.” So my question to you is, given what you’ve seen and learned, and even given what your own film shows us, is that true? Is Africa a hopeless continent?
Peck: It’s not more hopeless than other places that have been somehow blocked in their development. And I do hope that people see the film as one that shows the very strong links between the state of Africa today and the interests that brought Africa to this state. In particular, if you look at Congo, with 80 years of colonial rule by the Belgians, and then thirty years of a foreign backed dictatorship, the Congolese never had a chance to decide for themselves about their own country.
So what are we really talking about when we say, “Look at them. Look at how they are killing each other.” We, and I mean by that, the successive administrations of the United States and European powers and the CIA, were responsible for deciding for the people of Congo, and often against the interests of the people of Congo, who should control their country. We have to be aware that a lot of the leaders of the third world only came to power because somebody in Paris, somebody in Washington, somebody in Brussels, decided that they should be the ones to take power.
Lumumba was elected. And he was the only person to ever be elected in Congo. There were no elections before and no elections since. And it is important to understand that there are other countries which were deeply linked with the events that have taken place here and elsewhere. Joseph Mobutu, for example, only stayed in power all this time because he was protected by Washington, by France, by Belgium. He was saved many times, and he was only defeated because those powers decided that, “Okay, it’s time for Mobutu to go.” So these are not two stories that have nothing to do with each other. They are the same story with the same interests.