Interview with Raoul Peck, by Olivier Barlet

Cannes, mai 2000
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What is the importance of making a film about the Lumumba tragedy today?
It is a history which must not be forgotten, which happened at a pivotal time for our countries, for Africa in particular. One musn’t forget that over a dozen countries gained independence between 1960 and 1961. It was a time of great hope for our countries, and you see what state we are in today… Working on this period helps us to understand a lot of things, therefore, and in particular the interests which continue to play a role, the different protagonists’ biases, the responsibilities, including our own, and the film deals with all of these aspects.
Unlike in your highly personal documentary « Lumumba, Death of a Prophet », you were anxious to stay very close to reality in this film.
Indeed, the opening shot of the film specifies that this is a true story. The witnesses are still alive, the archives exist, the journalists who covered the events can still speak, his daughter Juliana Lumumba too. There are no characters which I invented anywhere, there is no dialogue which I made up, or very little, the speeches are Lumumba’s, King Baudouin’s, and others’ real speeches, the interviews are real, the riots are real, the film is real from beginning to end. I didn’t invent the scene in which the bodies are cut up by the two Belgian superintendents: I have the account of one of these two participants! It is not a fiction in the sense of me having invented an event. However, I feel that a fictional approach in the sense of a cinematographic narrative was necessary to reach as wide an audience as possible, unlike my documentary. Lumumba’s rise to power and his fall, his murder… unfortunately everything is real in this film! The scene in the parliament on independence day was constructed from the existing archives. In this film, I recreated a good number of the archive images which were in the documentary through fiction.
The film comes at a time when the Belgians have set up a commission of inquiry into Lumumba’s death. Was this a coincidence? Is public opinion ready for such questions to be asked?
There is a certain readiness: each party is examining its own history. All desire for truth is positive! I think that it is legitimate for Belgian public opinion to want to know what really happened in Congo at that time, and where each parties’ responsibilities lie, especially the Belgian government’s of the time. I can therefore only be in favour of such a commission. But the film has no relation to the current climate: I had been working on Lumumba for ten years! I was able to make the film at last, and it was made to leave its mark and to be an important historical testimony. If current affairs have caught up with us, so much the better! I think that this will make the public even more aware, and will help it to understand the root of this history in an even more carnal way. Lumumba is an emblematic character: Cabral, Samora Machel, etc. also deserve their films! Lumumba was made to understand this history, to safeguard memory.
Did that necessarily require staying so close to reality?
Film is not only about telling stories. I make combatant films, films for memory. That does not give rise to the portrait of a perfect hero. Nothing is simple in life, and the film is complex. Lumumba is not a monolith: he has his hesitations and his courageous moments. I wanted to portray him in his entirety, without erasing his at times demagogic side.
Was Lumumba’s destiny compromised from the outset?
The Belgians had not intended to leave the Congo. No Congolese had been trained to lead or to manage a country 80 times bigger than Belgium, 20 times bigger than France! Lumumba was a humanist who had been brought up by the Catholics: he thought that there would be a real independence. He wouldn’t accept any compromises. His destitution was perfectly illegal: the whole world knew so and looked on passively because they all agreed that he had to be removed.
Your film clearly shows the journalists of the time to be witnesses who kept silent.
They met Lumumba and saw him being beaten when he was still Prime Minister. But they wrote: « Lumumba the upstart dictator, Mr Uranium, the Elvis Presley of African politics, the mad Prime Minister, the bush politician, the negro with a goatee… » I scrutinized the images they made and I sought the reality behind them. These famous films and photos of Lumumba beaten and humiliated have left their mark. I always had the feeling that these images were those of a man I knew: intimate, close images. The Lumumba who refused to comply with other people’s definitions meant that my own history escaped me too and that I was not in control of it. It was therefore necessary to decode, to decrypt, to penetrate a veritable wall of information and disinformation, the over-simplistic accounts of a Eurocentric good conscience.
Why did you decide to shoot in Zimbabwe and Mozambique?
I would of course have liked to shoot in the Congo, at least some of the exteriors which were particularly important to me, but there was a war on. We had to guarantee a minimum of stability, to limit the risks, to control the production… We chose Zimbabwe because it was a calm and tranquil trouble-free country, the Switzerland of Africa! Today the insurance companies would ask impossibly high sums. In Mozambique I found a town, Beira, which looks amazingly like the Léopoldville of the Sixties. The town has barely changed since the Portuguese left. But we only shot there for about ten days.
You ended up choosing very well-known actors. What determined your casting choices?
We didn’t systematically work on the resemblance with the historical characters. In Lumumba’s case, we needed to work on the character’s interior aspect more than on a face: to construct his way of looking, to convey his feelings. Lumumba isn’t just glasses and a goatee! As for Mobutu, producing a caricature of a typical dictator, a « cunning and cruel black king » was out of the question. He made a choice and he wasn’t the only one to take this decision: he was neither a monster nor a « pathological baddie ». In our countries, we know too well what a dictator is. In my country, in Haiti, a former Catholic priest, a follower of liberation theology, is on the verge of becoming a new caricature today. Making simplistic portraits would not help to understand. The history of humanity has shown that men are capable of the worst crimes with the best possible justifications.

///Article N° : 5466


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