By John Duncan Talbird.
When Raoul Peck was nominated for an Oscar last year for his documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, to many he seemed to have appeared from out of nowhere. But his first feature film, the New York City immigrant drama, Haitian Corner (1987), appeared nearly thirty years ago. Since then, he’s written and directed over a dozen features, documentaries, and shorts for TV and cinema including both a documentary and feature film about Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Peck lived for many years (Lumumba: La Mort du Prophète, 1990 and Lumumba, 2000, respectively) and the HBO film Sometimes in April (2005) about the Rwanda genocide, starring Idris Elba and Debra Winger. I Am Not Your Negro has been justly celebrated with a BAFTA, two prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, and an award at the Toronto International Film Festival among many others. In 2001, he won a lifetime achievement award at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. He lived the first eight years of his life in Haiti until his family emigrated to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Currently, he divides his time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he served as Minister of Culture from 1996-1997) and New Jersey outside of Philadelphia.
On a spring-like day in February, Peck and I met in Lower Manhattan for a conversation about his new feature film, The Young Karl Marx, his career up to this point, and the place of politics in cinema. Following is an edited version of that conversation.
In some ways, The Young Karl Marx is a traditional historical film set in the 19th century – nice string music, actors who speak the language they’re supposed to speak. They speak English, they speak German, French –
But that’s not conventional. I’m going to use the real language that the people speak. Normally, a producer will say, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that. It’s going to be problematic, the US market, they don’t like subtitles and so on. But I wanted the film to be embedded in reality. It’s not a fluffy movie, the usual biopic. I’m almost doing a documentary film using fictional techniques. It’s a film about the evolution of ideas, a no-no in cinema. So my challenge is how to get those ideas on the big screen for a wider audience. In a typical biopic, the dramatic structure has more importance than ideas to the detriment of the real story. I did exactly the contrary. I said I’m not going to let anyone touch the real story and at the same time I’m going to stay with the strengths of cinema – I give you a storyline, I give you suspense, I give you moments of intensity. That, I’ll give you, but I’m not going to change the real content. But you’ll still have climaxes and surprises and moments of suspense and romance. That’s the challenge.
I felt almost as if the film traffics in the suspense of ideas. There is traditional suspense like the violence in the opening minutes of the film or the wonderful chase sequence with Marx and Engels running from the French police in Paris, but most of the suspense is just people arguing and then proposing counter-arguments.
That’s what Marx is about. The film is about four young people – Karl Marx [August Diehl], Friedrich Engels [Stefan Konarske] and their wives, Jenny Marx [Vicky Krieps] and Mary Burns [Hannah Steele]—who decided to change the world. That’s an incredible ambition. And I show them doing that – that’s the film. When do you ever see that? The birth of an idea. They’re putting it on paper and in real life they’re organizing people. And that’s the story of this society, because we are embedded in it today, capitalist society. And the film is showing the birth of the resistance to that society.
I thought it was striking that the women have such a central part in the film. We think of Marx and Engels in big letters, but the women are crucial to this story.
That is one of the big tragedies of leftist movements is that they’ve often said, “Gender is not the main subject we’re concerned about. Women will have their place and be raised up automatically if the revolution succeeds.” In the sixties with the flower power movement that was the same. Sexual freedom and so on, but the women’s movement was pushed aside. “You are not part of the main contradiction,” the main contradiction being the fight against capitalism. This is the same issue with race. These are issues that have to be included in the fight. It’s not something you just deal with after the fight. It’s the same contradiction when governments say, “I’m fighting for democracy, but for now I’m killing people.” And I say no, you’re going to create a society where murder is central because you’ve killed so many people in the name of democracy. Where does it stop? What are you going to do with all the killers who helped you get what you wanted? And that’s one of the central ideas of Marx. In that scene where he’s arguing against Wilhelm Weitling [Alexander Scheer], Weitling says, “If we have 40,000 convicted murderers who we release from prison and a few thousand workers, we can seize power and change the world.” And Marx says, “No, that’s wrong. We should educate first. Ignorance helps nobody.” Marx says, “The emancipation of all depends on the emancipation of each.” And what the Soviets did after the Russian Revolution is exactly contrary to the idea of Marx. Howard Zinn asked “How can you call a man who kills a communist? That’s a bandit, a gangster.” And Lenin himself wrote about it during the last two years of his life after he had a heart attack and had to withdraw from public life. He said, “My god, we created a bureaucracy that was worse than the one before.” That’s what you get when institutions are not democratic enough and a few leaders take over. That’s what Stalin did, he installed a regime of terror that had nothing to do with socialism or communism. And you have many examples of this throughout the 20th century.
I notice that a character shouts out at one point, “The system is rigged.” That’s a common phrase bandied about these days in the West. What do you see that Marx’s place is in contemporary society?
He is at the center. The first great mind to try to explain capitalism as a system was Marx. And every theory that has been developed afterward is from Marx. Whether it is in sociology or psychology, in philosophy, economics. Even the right uses Marx. When someone writes, “This multinational is laying off 10,000 workers, closing down a whole city because they can make 0.01 percent profit somewhere else,” this is what Marx analyzed. It’s like an algorithm or an equation: if you want to make that part more, you have to cut down on this – no matter what it costs in terms of human life and existence. That’s what capitalism is, it’s a basic formula. Marx says, “It’s your place in an economy called ‘process’ that will decide who you will become.” If you are born in a poor family, you will stay poor. There’s a 99% chance that you will end up in a bad school or get mugged or killed. And there’s a 99% chance that if you are rich you will stay rich, that you will live in a good neighborhood and attend the best schools, have the richest friends, etc. There is no miracle in that. That is the class analysis that Marx does. So, of course, you can offer the fairytale of the shoeshine boy who becomes a millionaire. Or even Trump saying, “I only got one million from my father to start my business.” Hah! You got one million to start your business. That’s what it’s all about. And that’s why my fight is a fight against ignorance. It’s not about dogma or propaganda. It’s about knowing your history before you open your mouth. Know where you come from, know the society you live in. And what I get from Marx is the capacity to analyze society. If you read the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto (1848), it’s the description of today, how capital will invade the whole planet, how capitalism has no brakes, that it will devastate everything, even the environment, the role of speculation, and even crises like the one of 2008. That’s why I made the film. It’s not a film about the past. Just like I Am Not Your Negro, which is also a film about today. I’m not interested in making films about the past. My films are about explaining what’s going on now and through that explanation a younger generation can make the right decisions to become a real citizen, to become a responsible voter. Because what’s happening now, it’s like an incredible veil of ignorance over everything. And that will go nowhere. Look at a simple discussion about gun violence. There is no other country where this type of thing happens so often. And there is no other developed country that has so few gun regulations. It is a fact, but we don’t discuss the fact. We fight with words, with lies, with “fake news,” etc.
Most of your films are about fighting injustice. What do you see your project is as a filmmaker? Do you have a central governing idea?
First of all, I came into film through my engagement with politics. I come from a country [Haiti] that was, for more than thirty years, under a dictatorship so I know what a dictatorship is. I went to Congo, I saw a young nation trying to survive out of colonialism. I was fortunate enough to go to France and then Germany to get a different kind of education. So my goal, if I have one, is to be in my time and see how I can offer a better understanding of what’s going on and how can we fight better. Injustice is one of my fuels. It’s something I can’t accept. All of my films are about power—the abuse of it, the lack of it. That’s how I decide to make a film or not. I’ve been offered all sorts of film projects. I basically say ‘No’ to ninety percent of all projects I’m offered. Once you make a thriller there is nothing left. I’m not against the genre, but it’s rare to have a good thriller like The Insider [Michael Mann, 1999]. If I was offered a film like that, I would do it, because it’s interesting, it’s realistic. I’m a black man from Haiti and there was no place waiting for me. I had to make my place and make the films that nobody else was making. I follow my life. When I made my films about Lumumba it was because I grew up in the Congo so I knew the history. All of my films are linked to my life, to the places I’ve lived and the people I’ve met. I always try to be involved wherever I am. I am also connected to the US. My brother went to Vietnam. And America was very influential in the dictatorship of Haiti. And so I only deal with subjects that are close to home. Marx, for me, is the basis of my thinking, not in terms of dogma or politics per se, but I’m interested in Marx the philosopher, Marx the economist. Marx is an important tool, the same way I use the tools of deconstruction that [James] Baldwin gave me. This is why I make a biography, not because I revere any “great” man. But Marx did something that nobody else had done and nobody else has been able to eclipse since then. Even when Thomas Piketty is making a study about inequality today, he uses Marx’s analysis and he came back with the result that the inequality gap is even bigger today. That’s the kind of work that I find important and interesting. It’s the way you use the tools to change whatever needs to be changed in your society.
Why did you use Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in the closing segment of your film?
Because I need to come back to the present. It’s not a film of the past, it’s a film of today. I wanted to connect with today’s generation and I needed a song and a voice that would be universally recognized whether in the US or Europe or elsewhere. And that song paired with the archival footage – basically, in less than two minutes, I give you the whole history of the modern world: the First World War, the Second World War, the stock market crash, Mandella, the subprime crisis, immigrant migration, and so on. This is the evolution of capital. And we’ve lost the capacity to link all of this together. We think these events are cut up into little pieces and we’ve lost the ability to analyze the whole thing. And so the ending of the film is meant to reconnect the dots.
I found the use of Dylan actually kind of playful too. It reminded me of moments in your Baldwin documentary [I Am Not Your Negro]. Despite their serious content, they’re both very pleasurable to watch.
Yes, my goal is to go where the people are. Don’t serve them something that is dark and incomprehensible. My films are embedded in life. I like laughing, I like good music, I like to discover things, I’m curious, and all of that should go into a film as well. I want the widest possible audience, so I have to go to them. I can’t say, “I made this difficult film. It’s your problem, understand it or not.” I care that the audience understands it. Depending on what viewers bring in terms of their knowledge, there are different layers that they can follow in the film. Somebody who never heard of Marx can still appreciate the film. Marx is a human being. He made love to his wife, he had six children. Making it a reality removes the dogma. Just as with Baldwin. In that film I only used Baldwin’s words. In The Young Karl Marx, I almost only used Marx and Engels’ words. We based the film on the letters they were writing to each other – talking about their moods, about the next meeting, money missing, Engels sleeping with so-and-so’s mistress, etc. That’s how we got who they really are.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.