Reclaiming History in the Congo: Through Both Documentary and Feature
During the Berlin Conference of 1885, Europe divided up the African continent, and the Congo became the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium. Over the next 75 years, the Belgians ruled the country with a brutality that was shocking even to like-minded European powers. It wasn’t until June 30, 1960, that Congo finally regained its independence. But the bitter travails of decolonization were only just beginning. Patrice Lumumba, an ardent nationalist and supporter of Pan-African unity, became the first elected prime minister of Congo, and was immediately vilified in the West as a Communist and betrayed by political rivals at home. Within eight months, the 35 year old Lumumba was assassinated with the collusion of the United States and Belgium.
“It is a history that must not be forgotten. Lumumba’s story is a mirror of what is happening today in Africa, and around the world,” says Haitian-born director Raoul Peck, while discussing the two films he has made about the slain African leader, the documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1991) and his recent feature, Lumumba (2001). “For me,” he says, “the world is not divided: our histories are interwoven. The end of the Cold War makes things clearer because the problems are still there and we can see they are not the result of the East-West conflict.”
Neither political tracts nor paeans, both Death of a Prophet and Lumumba lay bare the Byzantine political cross-currents and competing interests that ultimately doomed the charismatic Lumumba. His intention for both works, 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 film[s] that would be of use to the future of Africa and the third world because [they] show the mechanisms 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.”
Death of a Prophet is simultaneously a political and metaphorical filmic essay. Audiences familiar with Peck’s unorthodox cinematic practices will recognize his signature use of text, fractured imagery and montage as a method of recontextualizing history. Peck employs a wide variety of material in the film, including newsreel footage of Lumumba, home movies of the director as a boy (Peck spent much of his childhood in Congo, where his parents moved as part of a wave of Haitian intelligentsia that relocated to the country after independence), interviews with journalists and with Lumumba’s daughter, and, finally, his own reflective commentary. The documentary’s non-linear structure and thoughtful digressions succeed in peeling away Lumumba’s near-mythic hero status to reveal not only the man and his important role in postcolonial Africa, but also the relationship between private recollection and public history.
In contrast to the doc, which has the emotional force of a fable, Lumumba deftly chronicles the complex, behind-the-scenes machinations up to and after Congo’s independence. The drama works as both a searing portrait of a vanquished leader as well as a brief history lesson, proving, says Peck, that “you can make a mainstream film without compromising your political ideas.”
Lumumba opens at the end of the deposed prime minister’s life. Handcuffed, his head bloodied from countless beatings, Lumumba (forcefully played by French stage actor Eriq Ebouaney) and two aides are driven to their execution site. The rest of the film is a posthumous flashback, as the protagonist’s corpse is hideously cut to pieces and burned by two Belgian soldiers, so as not to leave evidence of the circumstances of his death. “No tomb, no memorial, even dead I was a threat to them,” Lumumba recites in a beyond-the-grave narration.
The film picks up the subject’s life in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), where he is a salesman for a Belgian beer company and the popular leader of the Congolese National Movement. Lumumba’s political activity puts him in contact with his future nemesis, Joseph Mobutu (the intense Alex Descas). Considered a dangerous radical, Lumumba is imprisoned and tortured, but the Belgian police are forced to release him so he can attend a conference in Brussels preparing for Congo’s independence. Lumumba’s party wins the country’s first free elections and he becomes prime minister. Within days, however, Congo slides into anarchy. The national army, led by white officers, rebels, the Belgians intervene militarily, the mineral-rich province of Katanga, controlled by yet another of Lumumba’s opponents, Moise Tshombe (Pascal N’Zonzi), secedes, and the Soviets and the Americans intensify their Cold War maneuverings. In the end, the weak-willed president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu (Maka Kotto), buckles under the mounting pressure and dismisses Lumumba after two months in office. Lumumba manages to flee Leopoldville, but is later arrested. On January 17, 1961, he is delivered to his enemies in Katanga. All the events portrayed in the film are true.
With electrifying precision, the film’s succinct imagery exposes the deadly forces that encircle and destroy Lumumba’s fledgling government. We see mutinous army conscripts burst into a cabinet meeting at gunpoint coupled with frenzied late-night meetings, the invasion by Belgian troops, and passionate, nationalist speeches. Impressively, Peck avoids the pitfalls of propaganda and caricature, providing audiences instead with an intelligent, multilayered portrait of an exceptional time and place in history. Although the movie does not delve into Lumumba’s personal life—there are only a few minor scenes with his wife and daughter—the film vividly depicts his character. He was a man both willful and idealistic, whose dream of a united and free Congo blinded him to the realpolitik that would ultimately be his undoing.
“Lumumba was the first African leader to attract the attention of the worldwide media,” says Peck, “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. Congo is a big country [80 times the size of Belgium], 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.”
The last images of Lumumba cut back and forth between the burning of Lumumba’s corpse and Mobutu, sitting on a throne, presiding over a garden party. As the flames light up the screen, the voiceover advises, “Tell them I came 50 years too soon.” Indeed, the “right to… an independence without restrictions,” for which Lumumba gave his life, did not follow Congo’s liberation. Instead, Mobutu Sese Seko (nee Joseph Mobutu), one of the architects of Lumumba’s overthrow, came to power in a military coup in 1965 and ruled until 1997 when he was ousted by the forces of Laurent Kabila, who was in turn murdered in 2001 and succeeded by his son, Joseph.
It was the continuing turmoil in Congo that forced Peck in 1999 to film Lumumba in Belgium, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. He notes that “I would of course have liked to shoot in Congo, at least some of the exteriors that were particularly important to me. But there was a war on, and no insurance company would have agreed to insure the production.”
According to Peck, it had always been his intention to make a dramatic film about Lumumba first, but it took until the mid-‘90s to secure financing for such a large project. In the interim, his research on the subject led him to connections with his childhood in Congo: “I always had the feeling that the images [of Lumumba] were of a man I knew: intimate, close images that were part of my own family story.” Intrigued by his discoveries, he began working on a documentary. What was supposed to be a quick project took three years to complete and became one of his most acclaimed works. In the end, the detour was useful, Peck says, because the doc helped him prepare creatively for the feature. “The project had time to mature, and I felt very confident later on about my choices. All the mistakes had already been made.”
Although the two works have different audiences—the doc is distributed mainly through television, universities and festivals, while the feature has a theatrical release—they both share a common message: that the “official” history is not the only truth. For Peck, the different genres pose a distinction with little difference. He says the style and subject matter of his films represent “a way of expression—political expression—and a way to be involved. My goal is not just to make films as an artist, but to make films as a citizen.”