One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.
L’Homme sur les quais (The Man by the Shore, 1993) [Haiti/France/Canada/Germany]
In this film Peck recreates the 60s and the rule of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, focusing on a young girl (Jennifer Zubar) whose family are clearly on the outside of the power structures, enforced by the roving paramilitary mercenary bands of Duvalier’s enforcers, the Tonton Macoute. Keeping much of the focus on this young girl and her family (all women; the men have largely been “disappeared” it seems) makes clear the level of exploitation that a lot of ordinary citizens had to suffer from this cadre, with rampant corruption, torture and sexual violence — only some of which is depicted in the film, but it’s enough to make it clear these were difficult times. Peck’s filmmaking style is poetic and lyrical, even if the transfer from film to DVD isn’t always pristine.
Director Raoul Peck; Writers Peck and André Grall [or André Graill]; Cinematographer Armand Marco; Starring Jennifer Zubar, Toto Bissainthe; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 July 2018.
Lumumba (2000) [France/Belgium/Germany/Haiti]
A very beautifully-made film which focuses primarily on the last few months in the life of the first Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Its lead actor (Eriq Ebouaney) does a fine job in conveying the firebrand passion for independence of Lumumba and the way he gets cornered by factional divisions fomented by the younger Mobutu (Alex Descas) and stoked by the outgoing Belgian colonialists. Obviously there’s a lot more detail there for those more familiar with the history (as I am not), but it is all put out with passion and logic by Raoul Peck and is a fascinating story of modern Africa.
Director Raoul Peck; Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Dan Edelstein and Peck; Cinematographer Bernard Lutic; Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Alex Descas; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 October 2017.
Le Jeune Karl Marx (The Young Karl Marx, 2017) [France/Germany/Belgium]
Set largely during the 1840s, finishing with the publication of the Communist Manifesto, this biopic makes Karl Marx a rather scruffily attractive young man (August Diehl) searching for a way to express his opposition to the corrupt forces in society. That said, the action, such as it is, involves a lot of intense conversations in dark rooms, a lot of earnest revolutionary meetings, and a bit of squalid factory conditions (as the bourgeois factory owner’s son Fred Engels, played by Stefan Konarske, researches his own book). Still, it has an admirable goal, and the credits sequence linking Marx’s insights to subsequent legacies of protest is moving.
Director Raoul Peck; Writers Pascal Bonitzer and Peck; Cinematographer Kolja Brandt; Starring August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Gourmet; Length 118 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Chicago, Saturday 17 June 2017.