Driven to Perfection

Art & Industry

Haitian director Raoul Peck says Lumumba proves to him that "you can make a mainstream film without compromising your political ideas." The Best Feature winner at the 2001 Pan African Film Festival in L.A. (it played at the Magic Johnson Theaters for six sold-out screenings), Lumumba opens at Film Forum on June 27.

Peck, who was in town to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, began working on a Lumumba biopic over 10 years ago. A leader in the Congo's struggle to win independence from Belgium, Patrice Lumumba was his country's first elected prime minister. He held office for only two and a half months—from late June to early September of 1960—and was assassinated in January of the following year. "My main goal," Peck explains, "was neither to idealize Lumumba as a hero nor to denounce the CIA, the UN, and Belgium for their roles in his death. It was to make a film that would be of use to the future of Africa and the third world because it showed the mechanism of power. And for that, you have to put everything on the table, including the divisions among the Congolese themselves that allowed external influences to get power."

When Peck was eight years old, he moved to the Congo—then in its early postcolonial period—from Haiti. Having already been arrested twice by the Duvalier regime, Peck's father seized the opportunity offered by the UN to be part of a contingent of Haitians recruited to fill in for the Belgian teachers and civil servants who had fled the country. Thus Peck's childhood memories played a part in shaping Lumumba. Among the piles of reference material he accumulated were family photographs and 8mm home movies.

The fast and the furious: Clive Owen in The Hire
Photo Courtesy of
The fast and the furious: Clive Owen in The Hire

He first incorporated his research into the lauded 1992 documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet. From the beginning, however, he wanted to make a dramatic film that "aimed to be a true story." By the mid '90s, he had secured financing, but the project was put on hold when he took time out from filmmaking to become Haiti's minister of culture for 18 months. "What was happening in Haiti was an overwhelming popular movement that involved poor people, the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia. We felt we had only a limited amount of time to institutionalize the democratic vision of that moment. And basically, we lost. Most of us resigned with the prime minister, the crisis deepened, and we're still in it today." Peck continues to divide his time between France, the U.S., and Haiti. "If it wasn't for e-mail, my family could never keep track of me."

In his notes for the Cannes premiere of Lumumba in 2000, Peck wrote that he returned to the project "as a way of using my own experience to sum up a political destiny distorted from the start." Since war was again tearing through the Congo, he settled on Beira in Mozambique, which still resembles the Léopoldville of his childhood, as his primary location. The film cost $4 million—which, since it's a period piece with epic sweep, amazes the people Peck talks to in the U.S. "I worked with top talent in all aspects of the production, and they were well paid for their work. The money is all on the screen."

As Lumumba, Peck cast the great Paris stage actor Eriq Ebouaney, whose huge, shattering performance encompasses Lumumba's charisma, his oratorical brilliance, and the private fear, confusion, and exhaustion that dogged his brief experience of power. "Lumumba was the first African leader to attract the attention of the worldwide media, but he was self-taught and completely unprepared to confront skilled diplomats. Every day he'd go out and bluff. All he had was his gift for talking to people; he had no resources to back up his words. The Congo is a big country, and he didn't even have a plane at his disposal. He knew he needed Belgian support, but those powers don't accept the slightest exercise of resistance, and Lumumba refused to offer them conciliatory words or gestures. His daughter told me that most of the time he was sure he was going to be killed."

During the decade that Peck prepared Lumumba, he also completed two features, The Man by the Shore (1993) and Corps Plongés (1998). Several years ago, he acquired Russell Banks's novel Continental Drift and worked with Banks on an adaptation; after several years away from the project, he's started to write a new version from scratch.

Lumumba's $4 million budget is probably less than a third of what it cost to bring The Hire, a series of five short films, to BMW's Web site. The brainchild of BMW, its advertising agency Fallon, and the production-management company Anonymous Content, The Hire is the most dazzling instance of product placement since E.T. bestowed near magical power on Reese's Pieces. But more than that, it's a landmark in a hybridized media landscape, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate art, entertainment, and commerce, let alone the delivery systems of the movies, TV, and the Internet. Fallon's clever marketing campaign, which treats The Hire as if it were a theatrical-release feature (trailers on TV, print ads in the movie sections of newspapers and magazines), underscores the way the series collapses categories.

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