A hero betrayed

How did Patrice Lumumba spark such brutality, such fury? Why, among all the leaders who marked their era, was he erased from history?

The tragic figure of Lumumba haunts the mighty of today as it did yesterday. He disturbs. He raises questions about our age, about its past and present failings.

Lumumba doesn’t deal with a dated or local event. It is the story of a tragedy that has never ceased to echo throughout all the recent tragedies in Africa and Europe, from Rwanda to Yugoslavia. Neither hagiography nor chronicle, my film seeks a modern approach to a historical hero, mingling as it does the romantic and the political, the private and the public, individual history and the history of all of us.

More than a decade ago a producer offered me a script set in an African nation: A European protagonist takes a “descent into hell” before being “liberated” and returning home. I made a counter-proposal: a film set in a country I knew first hand, a subject that was closer to me. The Congo and the figure of Lumumba naturally came to mind, though I had no inkling this story would dredge up so many things for me. After a year of research, I rediscovered my childhood, my life in the Congo, that of my family, its place, its role.

In 1963, I joined my father in the Congo along with the rest of the family. My father 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 Belgians who had fled the disaster.

My documentary, Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, had been a trying personal experience, but it was important in that it allowed me to fulfil a need. It wasn’t merely a question of remembering the past, but of an active, productive remembrance, one that you must confront on a daily basis if it is not to shatter or overwhelm you.

I went looking for images and those who created them, imposed them, controlled them, financed them. I sought the reality behind these images. These filmed and photographic images of a beaten and humiliated Lumumba left their mark. I always had the feeling that these images were those of a man I was acquainted with. Close, personal images. The gaze of this man who refused to conform to the context, the speeches, the stories I was told or that I read: I couldn’t understand why he had been sacrificed as he was, why he had to disappear.

At the time of the Congolese crisis, the international press was there. The Congo moulded a number of “grand reporters”, the major bylines of the contemporary press. Many had personally known Lumumba and, when I interviewed them, a number of them had boasted of having edited his articles, of having “trained” Lumumba. A Lumumba they would later mock, a Lumumba who would be tortured before their very eyes.

I had to decode, decipher and burrow through a wall of information and misinformation — the simplistic accounts dictated by Eurocentric clear consciences.

I tried many approaches: I imagined dramatising the investigations of United Nations experts in Elisabethville, I imagined a young Congolese man shortly after the independence who falls in love with a European woman who has come to find the body of her brother, a journalist who died alongside Lumumba. There was always the vain attempt to inject a “white” character as a sort of intermediary. This was because my producer, Jacques Bidou, and I could not ignore the inevitable realities of the film production establishment, rather reticent to finance a complex enterprise of this kind about a black protagonist, and especially a French-speaking one.

This period set the stage for a cast of sorcerer’s apprentices. On all sides, from the big names of world politics (De Gaulle, Eisenhower, Krushchev) to the Belgian government and the local players, the players claimed one thing one day and the opposite the next. They all held out against events before submitting to them. They all lied, panicked, lost control. Power struggles, economic interests, manipulations of the populace, immediate or long-term stakes. No one came out of this story glorified, the United Nations included.

The destiny of the Congo was also subject to the incompatibility between Lumumba and UN secretary-general Dag Hammarksjöld, the

famous Mister H. He too met a premature death a few months after

Lumumba in a bizarre plane crash that has never been entirely explained. Hammarksjöld wanted to be the Congo’s “guardian”. Lumumba stood firm on the sovereignty and integrity of his country.

The story of Lumumba’s brief life is an incredible thriller with all the characters of traditional crime fiction: bandits, thieves, genuine and phoney policemen, spies, femmes fatales, adventurers, racist explorers, great intellectuals, journalists who stayed a week before going home to write a book. In this literary mass, teeming with distorted visions, prejudices and preconceptions, it is hard not to lose track of the large cast of characters, some of whom are secondary figures.

I had to make of all of this a clearly defined tragedy, not a chronicle.

My work was dictated by a need for accuracy. This is a true story in that the most minor event is true, few scenes are fictional and if so then only in details. Most of the events were recreated in precise detail beyond the needs of historical reconstruction: personages, ambience, fashions, places, words. Familiar scenes from photographs and newsreels have also had an emotional force for me. Their dramatic impact is intact. I wanted to record these details that stay in my mind such as the image of an old man in a hat, carrying a little girl in his arms, who is just behind Lumumba as he steps off the Sabena plane that has brought him to Brussels. The kind of detail that interests experts and fastidious witnesses, maybe, but for me, an indicator of memory and a clue to an approach that tends to justify my bias and the way I painstakingly explore images and acts and objects.

Behind the story of this Lumumba magnified, mythicised, elevated to the status of a symbol, I discovered men and their weaknesses. And what interests me first and foremost is to take apart the mechanisms, reveal the behind-the-scenes, the motivations, the things that go on behind great men, the power, the power struggles, the blindness and the clear consciences of those who believe themselves to be in possession of the truth.

It was difficult to find Lumumba the man in the mass of material heavily fixed by the historical reality of the time without making him an idealised hero or a legend and not a man caught up in a political maelstrom for which he was not prepared. At first, troubled by this Lumumba, it took me a while to come to love and understand him, as one must love and understand a character to portray him.

It was unthinkable to confuse the militant approach (in my mind too rigid and easily sectarian) with a political and human approach.

Lumumba defended positions that I perhaps would not share all the way, but my bias consisted of describing the human and historical limits of the man, without oversimplification and without sterilising the feelings and thoughts concerning him.

The sacrifice of Lumumba is the work of those who believed themselves to be in possession of the truth, for whom he could only be wrong. In fact, Lumumba “did” nothing, he never had the time. Why kill him, then? In the film, his voice says: “I had only expressed out loud a dream of freedom and brotherhood. Words they couldn’t stand to hear. Just words.” He was a nuisance. He had to vanish.

I would have liked to shoot in the Congo, at least in part, certain exteriors that were especially important to me, but it wasn’t possible. There was a war. When I saw the port of Beira in Mozambique, I suddenly felt myself transported back to Leopoldville in the 1960s. The city had hardly changed since the departure of the Portuguese. Streets, houses, facades, it was all there, in dilapidated condition but as I would have dreamed it. I followed my sense of place: sometimes, you know it’s there, you see everything begin to move. I rewrote certain scenes with Beira in mind, the square, the hotel, like the one from which Mobutu staged his coup in the heart of Leopoldville.

“I know that history will have its say some day, but it will not be history as written in Brussels, Paris or Washington, it will be our own.”

This line from Lumumba’s last letter to his wife Pauline was often used in the 1960s by the “anti-imperialist bloc”. I deliberately used it again.

I belong to a reality that’s shared by many in the Third World nations: we are not in control of our collective memory. I am confronted with the history of the Congo, but told by Belgian, French and US historians. We have to make up for a great deal of lost time, piles of books, mountains of words. I’d rather be accused of a “bias” than to fall short of this reality. I wanted Lumumba to supply enough elements so that the debate can be continued on more or less equal terms.

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