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Capturing a Lost Moment of Hope in Africa

A filmmaker draws on his time in politics to chronicle a brief rise and brutal fall.

July 15, 2001|EMORY HOLMES II

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.'

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.

"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

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