In December the British Film Institute (BFI) Southbank saw Raoul Peck visit to discuss his films for the Stolen Images: People & Power in the Films of Raoul Peck season dedicated to the ground-breaking Haitian filmmaker; director of the first Caribbean film to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival, Man by the Shore (1993), and the critically acclaimed, Sometimes in April (2005) starring Idris Elba.
The discussion, hosted by Colin Prescod – filmmaker and chair of the Institute of Race Relations, sought to delve into Peck’s politics and artistic motives.
At the age of eight, the Haitan-born director and his family relocated to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as political refugees. Much like his personal life, his films too would challenge the usual narrative. Often lauded as an African director, Peck has always tried to tell the unseen story, to give a voice to the voiceless and amplify it in such a way that those who would not listen stop and pay attention.
Throughout the talk the audience were presented with a collection of clips from his body of work. The selection included, Haitian Corner (1988), Man by the Shore and Lumumba (2000). As somewhat of a guest to Peck’s work I found myself feeling quite embarrassed at my initial surprise at his stylistic cinematography, his eye for beautiful spanning shots; colour and texture. In truth I expected a focus on presenting facts that would leave little room for beauty. Before the stories would even begin to unfold, the care taken into the chosen camera angles and the skill in the visual pace could easily attract the most particular of art-house film fans.
We watch and listen, and then hear Prescod and Peck discuss the clips. Peck explains that he is aware of the singularity of his style and approach to film. He tells us that of course he would have ‘liked to direct commercial movies such as Scary Movie  or the Marvel franchise but these were not the films that were coming his way’, more so he felt a real ‘responsibility’ to create work that focused on the subject matter that has defined his legacy. He continues to say that it is true that young people of colour, the ‘black British youth do not have heroes that represent them’ and this, he insists, is connected to the broken history that has yet to be filled in.
“Imagine you grew up in Britain and all you have seen in your whole life is maybeone time Cry Freedom [(1987) directed by Richard Attenborough], one time Lumumba and one time Malcolm X  directed by Spike Lee, and that’s it. And at some point you start to feel that there is something wrong – and there is – but there is nobody there to give [young persons of colour] some answers […] “what is my role in society, where do I fit?” But the kids don’t have anything to look up to – my kids have no heroes.” –Raoul Peck, African Odysseys present: Raoul Peck in Conversation
He adds that even now with the numerous films made about The Holocaust, people are still finding ways to discuss it. He draws similarities with the African/Caribbean experience, highlighting that one or two retellings is not enough and there must be more to comprehensively depict the events that have carried Africa and the African diaspora to where it presently is.
It was the lack of these stories being represented that pushed him down the path he has taken in his career as a filmmaker and the same reason why commercial film was never a true possibility. He was making way for the filmmakers to come:
“Many, many, many years of research […] there is only so much you can do in one lifetime […] I hope, after Lumumba, other people will make and try to revive those stories.” –Raoul Peck, African Odysseys present: Raoul Peck in Conversation
The conversation then shifts to Pecks political views. Not wanting to delve in too deep, Peck employs his documentary, Haitian Corner, to expand on his views. In the documentary the people featured speak only in Creole (one of Haiti’s official languages since 1961). From the point of view of the Haitian elite, Creole is seen as lesser to the French dialect, which he tells us is why he deliberately had the speakers communicate in it: a quiet but direct act of defiance. The quiet but direct method towards combating injustice seems to be very popular with Peck; we see this in his films both in the way they are filmed and the action that takes place through how he represents the settings and the subjects with a compassion that translates through the lens.
Peck’s experience with political turbulence and first-hand knowledge of global affairs is something to be awed at. With great confidence he talks of the Rwandan genocides and its tragic relationship with Europe. He describes an easy-to-understand but detailed observation of some of the events that have (and continue to) position Haiti in the circumstance it is in today. Under his brief tutelage the urgency of his work becomes clear.
At the conclusion of the talk I took the opportunity to meet the man himself. I had my words already prepared: I wanted to tell him that everything he said resounded with me, especially the part about feeling a sense of displacement as a member of the African diaspora but instead I swallowed the words and told a half truth. I said that I thought his work is brilliant and I’m glad to have encountered it, and it was great to meet him.
Visit the BFI website to find out more about future seasons, of which I am confident will equally cover engaging and confrontational ground.
Article originally published Dec 28, 2015 by Nora Denis