Haitian filmmaker, writer and former politician Raoul Peck paints profoundly jarring and wildly spirited portraits of the protracted and tumultuous political conflicts that are deeply enmeshed in the modern-day Haitian experience. Over the course of his three-decade long filmic career, Peck has demonstrated an exquisitely nuanced narrative dexterity in his treatment of the significant human consequences of Haiti’s recent socio-political history, delving into what is not only challenging and weighty cinematographic subject matter, but expressions of the deeply personal trials relating to Peck’s own life.
Born in 1953 in Port-au-Prince, Peck experienced a turbulent childhood that was deeply intertwined Haiti’s socio-political struggles, fleeing the Duvalier family’s tyrannical regime at the age of eight with his family and joining his father in the Congo. Afterward, Peck studied industrial engineering and economics at Berlin, he spent a year as a New York City taxi driver and he worked as a journalist and photographer before retuning to Berlin to earn a film degree. Peck made his directorial debut with a duo of short films – Leugt (1983) and Merry Christmas Deutschland (1984) – before releasing of his first feature film, Haitian Corner (1987), a sombre drama depicting the trials of a New York-based Haitian immigrant who develops a compulsive fixation with tracking down an unknown man who tortured him on behalf of the Duvalier dictatorship. The humble $150,000 budget film demonstrating the tormented protagonist’s eerie yet heart-rending downward spiral, garnered Peck a Golden Leopard-nomination at the Locarno International Film Festival and a Golden Montgolfiere at the Nantes Three Continents Festival.
Peck’s dedication to the portrayal of the arduous experiences of the Haitian diaspora, as well as those continually toiling in the native country exists as one of the strongest merits and most unique features of his oeuvre, imbuing his narratives with a heart authenticity. “My cinema is always about the absurdity of life,” Peck declares. “I’ve never made a purely fictional film.” Indeed, the Palm d’Or-nominated The Man by the Shore, released in the early nineties as the first Haitian film to be showed in the United States, emerged as a testament of this spirited yet shrewd directorial dexterity in its portrayal of 1960s Haiti during President François Duvalier’s (i.e. papa Doc’s) tyrannical regime. The historical drama follows the experiences of a young girl who witnesses the dark brutality of the Tonton Macoute – the militia that implemented papa doc’s terrorising directives on the Haitian people – without truly understanding the significance of the callousness which impregnates her life.
Until 1998, Peck made several documentaries: Haiti – Le silence des chiens (1994), Desounen: Dialogue with Death (1994) and Documenta X – Die Filme (1997), as well as the short film, Chère Catherine (1997), which confronts the pain of exile and the TV movie It’s Not About Love (1998) which was nominated for the Grand Prix des Amériques at the Montréal World Film Festival. Peck returned at the turn-of-the-century with his compelling breakthrough drama, Lumumba (2000), recounting the tempestuous political career of Congolese independence leader, Patrice Lumumba (itself a follow-up to his documentary film, Lumumba: The Death of a Prophet, released in 1990). Peck portrays the Congo’s political unrest during the time the country achieved independence from Belgium in the 1960s, from the early rise to power to the ruthless murder of Lumumba whose repute is grippingly depicted to oscillate from a disparaged leader to a redeemed champion.
The following year, Peck demonstrated his dedication to the portrayal of the contemporary man’s struggles in Profit & Nothing But! Or Impolite Thoughts on the Class Struggle, by presenting a portrait of modern commercial society’s neurotic drive for profit and the phantasmal rhetoric espoused in favour of the capitalist system, which is starkly contrasted with the real-life predicament of his native Haiti and the consequences of this socio-economic mode on people’s quotidian lives. Subsequently, Peck deviated from the world of cinema in order to delve into television projects – while retaining his profoundly insightful directorial style – with Sometimes in April (2005). The intensely moving historical drama depicting the physical and psychological conflicts experienced by a Hutu soldier as he struggles to ensure the safety of his family in the midst of the Rwandan genocide, earned Peck a nomination for the Golden Berlin Bear at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival.
For about a decade, the auteur remained in the world of television, directing several episodes of the crime-drama miniseries, L’affaire Villemin (2006), as well as two TV movies L’école du pouvoir and Moloch Tropical in 2009, before returning to the big screen with the insightful documentary, Fatal Assistance (2013). The production follows Peck on a two-year journey that is dedicated to the examination of the tremendous efforts of the Haitian citizens to rebuild their nation following the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake, portraying the agonizing struggles and determined strength of the inhabitants. Equally, Peck paints a candidly unsympathetic portrait of the failed leadership of the government and thousands of aid agencies during the period who refused to become a legitimate partner with the distrusted Haitian government in the post-earthquake efforts – the spirited yet tragic rhetoric of the film garnered Peck a nomination for a F:ACT Award at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX and a Viktor Award at Munich’s DOK.fest.
The auteur’s follow-up further explores the devastating earthquake in a sensitively perspicuous and deeply poignant tale, Murder in Pacot (2014), illustrating the debilitating effects of the tragedy on a privileged couple who attempt to salvage their lives that have crumbled amongst the debris of their villa in Port-au-Prince’s upscale district of Pacot. Two years later, Peck released one of his most seminal and acclaimed film, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), presenting audiences with an overwhelmingly powerful and defiant tale of modern America’s deeply complex race relations, through the infinitely sensitive and profoundly sharp perspective of celebrated novelist and civil rights activist, James Baldwin. Based on Baldwin’s strikingly prophetic unfinished novel Remember His House and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, Peck’s poetic and dauntless exploration of the myriad battles interwoven in the African-American experience emerges as an enthralling biographical drama as much an intensely illuminating look into an imperfect contemporary reality.
The film offers an exquisitely-crafted ode to Baldwin’s astute analysis of the United States’ 400 year-long racial drama and his extraordinary prescience as to the future of the country’s race relations. “I did not write one single line,” Peck says. “Everything in it is pure Baldwin. What I did was create a sort of libretto, like dancers who take a Shakespeare play and use it to make a collage to construct something different.” The film’s release marks an especially momentous time for Peck, garnering the helmer not only explosive international attention but also several accolades including his first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature – an impressive nod to his bold artistic endeavours throughout the course of his directorial career. This year heralds the release of Peck’s latest film, The Young Karl Marx, the highly-anticipated drama recounting the early years in the prolific philosopher’s life and his extensively-documented relationships with his intellectual collaborator Friedrich Engels and romantic kindred spirit, Jenny Marx.
The bona fide helmer’s ascension in the world of cinema boasts an admirable commitment to the deeply authentic portrayal of afflicted – yet proud and dauntless – peoples, who tales imbue an overpowering authenticity into modern-day cinema. If Peck’s transfixing career of nearly two dozen films exists as an sound indicator of what’s to come, The Young Karl Marx, will certainly expose audiences to aspects human nature about which they had never really thought.