Peck, Raoul 1953–
Raoul Peck 1953–
Rewrote History with Critically-Acclaimed Film
Saving History, Saving Ourselves
Though he has made his mark as an internationally-acclaimed filmmaker, Haitian-born Raoul Peck has also been a New York City taxi-driver, a journalist and photographer, and Minister of Culture in Haiti. Yet, for Peck, it was his art that truly defined him. “I consider myself first of all an artist. My work is about my creativity—why I create and not for whom. I hope to touch as many people as possible. My concern is not to be marginalized and at the same time not to compromise. I’m between those two lines,” Peck told www.indiewire.com.
An International Education
Peck was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1953. His family moved to the newly independent Congo in Western Africa in 1961. After numerous persecutions under the Duvalier regime in Haiti, including two arrests, Peck’s father leapt at an offer to teach in the newly de-colonized nation. “My father had been [in the Congo] 18 months. He was part of the contingent of Haitian teachers recruited for the Congo with the idea that ‘French-speaking blacks’ were better suited to replace the Belgian cadres who had fled [Congo’s revolution],” Peck wrote on www.zeitgeistfilms.com. Peck attended primary school during the chaotic, violent times that marred the Congo following Belgium’s departure. Living with his family in Leopoldville, the country’s capital, Peck was witness to political insecurity.
In sharp contrast to his early education in the third world, Peck finished school in the West, briefly studying in Brooklyn, New York before transferring to high school in France. Following graduation, Peck went to Germany where he studied industrial engineering and economics at Berlin University, graduating in 1982. After earning his degree Peck moved to New York City where he worked briefly as a cab driver while awaiting the results of his application to film school in Germany. He had begun making short experimental videos and films in 1982 and in 1984 became one of only 17 applicants accepted into the film program at the Berlin Film and Television Academy. In 1988 Peck earned his Master’s of Fine Arts in Film. While still a student, Peck made his first feature-length film, Haitian Corner, shot for just &150,000 on location in Brooklyn and Haiti. It is the story of a Haitian man who, after being released from many years of imprisonment and torture in a Haitian prison, moves to New York where he encounters his torturers on the streets of Brooklyn.
At a Glance…
Born in 1953, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; moved to Congo in 1963. Education: Berlin University, industrial engineering and economics, 1982; Berlin Film and Television Academy, M.F.A., film, 1988.
Career: Filmmaker. Made several feature length films, documentaries, and experimental videos, 1982–; shown films at festivals throughout the world including the Cannes Film Festival; Haiti, Minister of Culture, 1996–97; lectures and teaches at film schools throughout the world.
Member: President, Caribbean Federation of Film and Video; French Authors, Directors, and Producer’s Guild; German Writer’s Guild; president, Aide au Fonds Sud Cinema; founder, Foundation Forum Eldorado.
Awards: Nestor Almendros Award, Human Rights Watch Organization, 1994; indoctrinated into Haiti’s Honor and Merit Order; knighted into the Order of Arts and Literature, France; four Best Documentary Awards including Procirep Prize and Best Documentary, for Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, Montreal Film Festival; two Best Drama awards for Man by the Shore; Man by the Shore selected for competition at Cannes Film Festival; Best Film, for Lumumba, Pan African Film Festival; Paul Robeson Award, for Lumumba; Best Film, for Lumumba, Santo Domingo International Film Festival; Audience Prize, Jury Prize, and Grand Prize, for Lumumba, 11th African Film Festival; Best Film by a Foreign Director, for Lumumba, Acapulco Black Film Festival; Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award, Human Rights Watch Organization, 2001.
Addresses: Office —Zeitgeist Films, 247 Centre St, 2nd Floor, New York, New York, 10012, (212) 274-1989.
In 1992 Peck made the documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet. Not only did the film herald the start of a prolific career—it won four Best Documentary Awards on the international film festival circuit— but it also heralded for Peck the discovery of a theme that would become integral to his future work— memory. He wrote on www.zeitgeistfilm.com, “I discovered, sometimes with astonishment, how much the need for remembrance was vital for me. It wasn’t merely a question of remembering the past, but of an active, productive remembrance, one which you must confront on a daily basis if it is not to shatter or overwhelm you.” With this film Peck also established a unique style that American Visions described as, “[a] non-naturalist approach—his assemblage of poetry, legend and narrative as well as varying moods and techniques to tell a story-underscore his commitment to what [Peck] calls ‘the poetic aspect of reality.’”
Films Exposed Human Cruelty
Peck’s next major film, 1993’s Man by the Shore, became the first film by a Caribbean director to be selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Also focusing on the theme of memory, the film utilizes Peck’s fragmented, poetic style. Set in Haiti under the rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the film recounts the bloodshed and cruelty of this era through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah. “Man by the Shore is about violence; it’s about humanness, how we treat each other and how we resist cruelty,” Peck told American Visions. “Using ‘classical’ credible and real characters as a starting point, I employed stylistic elements in the film to introduce a level of interpretation which is slightly ‘out of sync’ or even abstract. It’s this dismantling of reality which allows us to identify ourselves via the figure of Sarah.”
Man by the Shore was followed by two documentaries in 1994: Desounen: Dialogue with Death, and Haiti, the Silence of the Dogs. The former was shot during a military dictatorship in Haiti. “I had to be in a totally protected area …. I had to be sure to select the right people [to interview] to be able to shoot in total freedom and security,” Peck told www.indiewire.com. Though considered a documentary, Desounen follows a fictitious dialogue between a Haitian peasant and Death. Throughout, there are interviews with Haitians reporting on the conditions under which they live— poverty, fear, political instability, death. Peck told www.indiewire.com, “My documentaries are very fictionalized. They all have story lines and fictive characters. And my fiction is all based on real stories, real events, real experiences I’ve had.”
From 1988 to 1995 Peck taught film courses in Germany, France, and in the United States at the famed Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He also received recognition for the role his art played in exposing human rights’ violations with a 1994 award from the Human Rights Watch Organization. In 1996 Peck received the opportunity to do more than just make films about what he saw wrong in the third world when he was appointed Haiti’s Minister of Culture under that nation’s newly elected democratic government. Despite the hopes of prominent Haitians such as Peck, Haiti fell once again into political turmoil and Peck resigned, along with Haiti’s prime minister, 19 months later. In 1998 Peck published a book about his experiences in the government, Monsieur le Ministre … Jusqu’au bout de la patience.
Following his resignation Peck went right back into film production, producing Corps Plongés in 1998. It follows a woman’s relationships with two men—an exiled Haitian official and a married U.S. politician. The same year, Peck was invited to be a guest artist at Dokumenta in Kassel, Germany, one of the most prestigious contemporary art festivals in the world. There he produced another award-winning film, the video essay Chere Catherine. However, his most successful work—critically and popularly—was yet to come.
Rewrote History with Critically-Acclaimed Film
In 2000 Peck released his feature film Lumumba. It follows the rise and fall of one of Congo’s first democratically-elected prime ministers, Patrice Lumumba. Filming the story required Peck to revisit the Congo of his youth. “I rediscovered my childhood, my life in the Congo—that of my family, its place, its role. I had to deal with all these things,” Peck wrote on www.zeitgeistfilm.com. The film cost just &4 million to produce—an amazing feat considering it is a period epic filmed in three countries. Though the cost was low, the toll on the filmmaker was great. It took over ten years to prepare the script.
The story of Lumumba is a difficult one. It was recorded in history by political interests—Belgium, the United States, Congolese opponents of Lumumba, and prejudiced journalists. “I often had to ‘reduce’ the reality because it was so complex, incredible and insane, and decipher this history, so contradictorily written and experienced by others. It took time, at times I backtracked, I did more than eight drafts of the script,” Peck wrote on the film’s website.
Like his previous films, Lumumba made a political statement, demanding that the audience remember the past. “My main goal,” Peck told the Jamaica Observer, “was neither to idealize Lumumba as a hero or denounce the CIA, the UN, and Belgium for their roles in his death. It was to make a film that would be of use to the future of Africa and the third world because it showed the mechanism of power.” Whether the film has been put to such use remains to be seen. It did, however, give Peck the broadest public attention of his career. The film won numerous awards at prestigious film festivals throughout the world and played to sold-out art house theaters in both the United States and Europe. In 2001, partly in response to this film, as well as Peck’s political work in Haiti, he was awarded the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights Watch Organization.
Saving History, Saving Ourselves
Peck continued to balance the roles of artist and activist, third world native, and Western world citizen. “I tend to believe that film can try to save what still can be saved, in terms of our histories, our memories. Because a lot of things are disappearing very quickly, things are changing. We are living in very quick times and we have a new generation who basically know nothing about events 30 years ago,” Peck told www.africafilmsny.com. Between the contradictions of this modern world—poverty alongside riches, bloodshed in pursuit of peace—Peck’s art has provided a dialogue for understanding history in the hopes of not repeating it.
Haitian Corner, Volkenborn, 1988.
Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, 1991.
The Man by the Shore, 1993.
Desounen: Dialogue with Death, 1994.
Haiti: The Silence of the Dogs, 1994.
Chere Catherine, 1998.
Corps Plonges, 1998.
American Visions, June-July 1996, p. 45.
Globe and Mail (Canada), September 13 2000, p. 1.
Jamaica Observer, June 26, 2001.
LA. Weekly, July 20, 2001.
Raoul Peck was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1953. At age eight, he and his parents fled the François Duvalier dictatorship, migrating to the Republic of the Congo in Africa. After secondary school in France, Peck studied industrial engineering in Berlin and in 1982 moved to New York City, where he worked as a taxi driver while waiting for a job at the United Nations. When this fell through, he returned to Berlin to study film at the German Film and Television Academy. While still a student, he produced a number of short films before directing his first full-length feature, Haitian Corner (1987). Filmed in Brooklyn for $150,000, it examines a Haitian immigrant's desire for vengeance when he thinks he recognizes one of his Tonton Macoute torturers from his time in prison in Haiti. Peck then worked as a film lecturer before directing the full-length documentary Lumumba: La mort du prophète in 1991. This intensely personal and poetic film focused on the life and eventual tragedy of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first prime minister. Peck's second feature film, L'Homme sur les quais (1993), is set in Haiti and is the story of a young girl who witnesses the effect of the Duvalier regime's terror on her family. Haiti is also the subject of Peck's documentaries Désounen: Dialogue with Death (1994) and Haiti: Silence of the Dogs (1994).
In 1996 Peck established the Foundation Forum Eldorado, dedicated to the promotion of cultural development in Haiti and the Caribbean. He served as minister of culture in Haiti but left after eighteen months, disillusioned with the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After writing a book on this experience, he resumed his career as a filmmaker. He directed the video documentary Chère Catherine (1997) and the full-length feature Corps plongés (1998) before returning to the story of Lumumba with his award-winning feature film Lumumba (2000).
Lumumba achieved significant popular and critical acclaim. Made on a modest budget of $4 million, it received wide international distribution. This success marked an important milestone in Peck's career, ensuring his recognition as a major black independent filmmaker from the African diaspora. His subsequent work focuses on social and political issues of the developing world: His documentary Profit and Nothing But (2001) criticizes the politics of globalization, and the feature-length HBO film Sometimes in April (2005) looks at genocide in Rwanda.
Peck has won numerous awards, including the 2001 Paul Robeson Prize at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival in Ouaguadougou, West Africa, and best film at the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival (2001) for Lumumba. He is the president of the Caribbean Federation of Film and Video and a member of the French Association of Independent Filmmakers, Auteurs, Realisateurs, et Producteurs (ARP).
See also Documentary Film; Duvalier, François; Film in Latin America and the Caribbean
Taylor, Clyde. "Autopsy of Terror: A Conversation with Raoul Peck." Transition 69 (1996): 236–246.
keith q. warner (2005)
bruce paddington (2005)