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‘Lumumba’ tells tragic tale of a Congolese hero

By Peter CrimminsDaily Planet correspondent
Monday August 06, 2001

History might be written by its victors, but a new film about an African political hero suggests revolution is remembered for its martyrs. 

“Lumumba,” opening in Berkeley on Friday, is a story told by a corpse. The film opens on a remote African plain where two men armed with machetes and kerosene are putting the pieces of the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo into an oil drum for incineration. The voice-over is from the assassinated Patrice Lumumba (played by Eriq Ebounay) inviting us to hear the story of a revolutionary who never realized his vision. 

Lumumba was elected to office in 1960 at the turbulent moment Congo became independent of Belgium’s colonial rule. Left adrift with few political resources, the Congolese government rapidly declined into nearly complete collapse. Lumumba – incorruptible, visionary, and proud – was deposed from office after two and one-half months by a military coup. Six months after elected he was dead. 

“His legacy was the sacrifice of his life, and the few big ideas he was defending,” said the film’s writer/director Raoul Peck, during his stay in San Francisco in June. “And most of all he said ‘no’ to corruption. He could not be bought.” 

Congo’s rich natural resources were sought after by the international community, and because of its fragile government the country was vulnerable to external pressure. The film portrays Lumumba’s mission to overcome internal divisions and establish a pan-African coalition, and his country’s desperate needs in the wake of independence.  

Raoul Peck was born Haitian and raised in Congo under the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, just after the assassination of Lumumba. His relationship with the legacy of Lumumba is personal, political, and cinematic. In 1991 he created a documentary called “Lumumba – Death of a Prophet” in which he explored his early memories of childhood in the wake of the murder of a national hero. 

He was later approached by Swiss producers to create a film about a European traveling to “some African country” where, like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” he confronts his personal demons. 

“I was not interested in that because I was interested in my own stories and my own history. But I could propose something else,” Peck recalled. “It’s best to speak about something you know, and I knew Congo.” 

After writing several unsatisfying drafts of scripts about the Congo, Peck realized he could look directly into the heart of late 20th century Congo – and, by extension, Africa – by telling the story of Lumumba. He says “Lumumba” is not merely based on the true story of the man, but it is the true story. 

As even the most perfunctory student of media representation knows, claiming a film is not just an interpretation of history but history itself is insupportable and a bit arrogant. But Peck did his homework and found the documented facts were dramatic enough to reproduce without doctoring them with fiction. 

“This is a rare example. I didn’t have to invent secondary characters. All the names you hear are real people. A lot of the small events in the film I did not invent. To the last details, and dialogues, I did not invent.” 

Peck went so far as to consult archival photos and filmstrips on the shooting set to make sure his re-enactments were accurate down to the extras and props. Much of the film, however, was shot in Mozambique and Zimbabwe for logistical reasons. 

When shooting a scene of a rag-tag troop of dissenting soldiers storming Lumumba’s cabinet meeting with guns raised, Peck was able to draw on eyewitness accounts.  

He was also able to use his position as a moviemaker to evoke the desperate fear in the crazed eyes of the soldiers on the edge of losing control. 

“Imagine his own fear having to play a Prime Minister even though he knew his experience was very short,” Peck said of Lumumba. “He had maybe two or three years’ military experience. It’s difficult to imagine, but it was incredible.” 

The story of Lumumba perhaps didn’t need invention to be good storytelling, but Peck did allow himself license as director to create cinematic moments that communicate something above their historical accuracy. 

Standing on a remote airstrip, Lumumba and President Joseph Kasavubu (played by Maka Kotto) pause their conference about the unstable future of their government to look at the beauty of the expansive savannah. The scene articulates a note of awe in view of the landscape and a taste of disappointment that this country they love and fight for might never be free. 

Peck says he made this film for a wide audience in an attempt to popularize the legacy of Lumumba but his attention to detail is for the people who know Africa already. “I wanted, if a Congolese watches this film, that he feel at home. I didn’t want to cheat on that; which happens a lot in movies… I wanted to make a film the Congolese people would be proud to see.” 


“Lumumba” runs Aug. 10-17 at the Shattuck Cinema, 2230 Shattuck Ave.