A Legacy in Images
By Donal Foreman
Can film change the world? Among the participants discussing this question on yesterday's panel, "Whose Side is it Anyway?", was Raoul Peck. Born in Haiti, Peck has also lived and worked in France, Germany and the Congo, and his films (both fiction and documentary) have consistently engaged in issues of global relevance. I talked to Peck after the event about his own experience as a filmmaker.
A lot of the filmmakers today who are most engaged in using film to change society seem to come from places that are in the most turmoil and poverty.
Raoul Peck: Yes. When I studied film in Germany, many of my colleagues did not have the sense of urgency that I had. It was a huge luxury for me to be able to study film in Berlin, and to not do something with it was impossible for me. When I went back to Haiti, I didn't want to just say "I make movies." I wanted to be able to say "I try to make films that can change something." I think in Europe and in the States sometimes there is not this urgency because their world is… okay somehow. In Haiti, this isn't possible.
You were Minister of Culture in Haiti for a short time. Were there any parallels between trying to affect change as a politician and as a filmmaker?
Raoul Peck: Unfortunately not. I mean, besides the way of dealing with people, of organizing things, being a director helped with that. But politics is a totally different field with totally different rules and conventions. I don't think it's something I would do as a career. You don't have much freedom in politics. The system takes over and if you are not ready to play the power game, it's very tough to survive. Also, in politics, you have to make compromises, but I've never had to in my films.
You've never had to make any artistic concessions?
Raoul Peck: No, never. I just try to find the right people, time, conditions. Otherwise I just don't make the film. Of course film is sometimes being pragmatic; but pragmatic about the way you do it, the size of your crew, etc. That's another type of compromise. What I don't compromise is the content, the theme or my political position.
A lot of films about atrocities risk making their audiences feel good about feeling bad; they watch, get outraged, feel a little worthier and then forget about it. Did you see that as a danger with your film about the Rwandan genocide, Sometimes In April?
Raoul Peck: That's exactly what I didn't want to do. I think the film managed to escape that, whereas other films didn't. The other aspect of it is that it's not only a film for the people who are going to see it. It was a film for the people who have gone through it. I made it with them. It was important that they were part of it, that they could tell their stories, and once they tell their stories, whatever the world makes out of it, that's the problem of the world.
That goes back to what you were saying earlier about your film Lumumba (about the assassinated president of Zaire): creating an image for a nation that didn't have any images of itself.
Raoul Peck: Yeah. It's your legacy. You know, what are you going to show to a twelve year old boy in twenty years about his country? You have a responsibility as a filmmaker, depending on where you came from. Some filmmakers say "I want to deal with the reality of today." But I have to do both. I have to make sure that when I make a film about the past, I'm talking about today too—because in terms of the structure, in terms of the power balance, nothing has changed.