Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (Raoul Peck, France, 1992)

lumumba pic

“Memories of a murder are expensive”- Raoul Peck

“History belongs to the winners” – generic proverb

In 1960 sixteen African states declared their independence from colonialism. Patrice Lumumba was the first leader of the independent Congo. His leadership lasted two months, after which he was arrested, tortured, and finally murdered.

Lumumba is primarily a film about paradox and conflict: The paradox of banality laced with poetry. The paradox of the individual subject groping for answers among the contradictory meaning structures of a colonised country. Even the paradox of attempting to ‘solve’ a paradox. But as the film progresses it becomes more about the dominance gained by capital over the means of representation, an ongoing process, which allows for the pervasion of ‘official’ points of view as power makes efforts to syphon all possible conclusion on historic events into it’s perverted milieu.

As a counterpoint to this mechanism, Lumumba shows us the ambiguous recognition of a self that is formed in a continuous reference to the complex totality of meaning that constitutes the world. The director’s battle lies in overcoming the grey area between presence and absence that lives in recordings of history, and can only be filled by context.

The film starts in the silent streets of a ‘modern’ city. It may be Katanga, a city in Congo. The narrator whispers in French of a “giant who fell that night”. As the camera pans across, the sight of a government building with boarded up windows indicates we are in a colony. Here the images and narration subtly indicate the effects of colonialism. The giant has fallen, killed by the colonial powers, and now the windows are boarded up and the streets are silent. Perhaps we are looking at a country that has resigned itself to defeat. The film then cuts to old, grainy, silent footage of Lumumba, having just won the election. The narrator tells us his time in office would last no more than two months.

By way of a preamble, the film has made a historical connection between Lumumba and the boarded up government building. In both cases the footage is silent, while the identity of the “giant who fell that night” is clearly indicated by the cut. Regarding the silence, however, an ambiguity remains. The Lumumba shots are bad quality compared with the shots of the street. The more advanced technology used to film the latter is connoted by what modernity considers to be the ‘better quality’ images, but the cut from one to the other opens up a grey area, a gap in the memory, or a trauma that has been repressed.

Within these first two minutes of the film we see how our perception of the world is tied to technological progress. Consider the high definition cameras of the present. They do, in many cases, produce images of ‘better quality’ than the human eye alone is capable of capturing. This gives the means of representation a history that is linked to the temporality of perception. In other words, what we see in the first two minutes of Lumumba are two different perceptions of two different moments in history, which are connected not only by the narrators voice and the cut, but also by their difference in technological ‘quality’. It is in this difference that we recognise the advancement of time, and the ever-disclosing nature of perception.

When the film cuts again, we are in what is obviously a modern day European city. There are white people walking around, sitting on buses, smoking in the street. Which city we are in is unspecified, so again we are invited towards that grey area between the presence and absence of meaning. How is it, for example, that I know (or at least, think) we are in a European city? Especially when camera has neglected the landscape, opting instead to capture medium shots of seemingly random faces.

Here we are offered the paradox of definition against ambiguity. The narrator speaks poetically over lackluster shots, connoting a meaning structure behind apparent banality. We are reminded of the Heideggarian notion of ‘being’ as ‘meaning-being’, that is, being as always in reference to something else (more on this here: heidegger-on-the-meaning-of-being). While there may be a definitive aspect to the being of an image, it is only by way of its reference to an other that it is continuously becoming. This sequence further indicates the importance of finding a context, of revealing history through the act of creating history. Later in the film, the narrator enhances this method by making up stories about the faces he captures: “This is Lionel, he would like to have been a guitarist in the South Pacific”.

What is happening here is that we are subtly being informed that everything means something, that nothing is spinning alone in a void. The sequence is a respectful way of stating the not-so-obvious fact that meaning has a relation to time.

At this early point the narrator asks us a question: should a prophet be brought back to life, or vanish? We then see rain falling on a puddle, creating ripples that both come to life and then vanish. This contrast emphasises the futility of the question, positing it as a paradox that is not meant to be solved, but endured. Here we can appeal to Kierkegaard’s work, “Either/Or”. The paradox opens up the possibility for myriad possibilities, which are diminished in the unimaginative conception of paradox as answerable in the form of an either/or (more on this here: section1.html).

The limited question of whether a prophet should be brought back to life or vanish is contrary to the affect of the rain we see falling on the screen, which, in doing both, reminds us of the circularity of history. The prophet will continuously both vanish and be brought back to life as part of the handing down of customs and traditions that is laced throughout the phylogenetic procession of humanity. This shot also enhances our sense of time and, in contrast to the either/or form, appeals to the complex totality of meaning brought forward a few seconds earlier in the film.

Lumumba is also about the subjective story of the narrator. We see childhood pictures and old home videos of his family in the suburbs of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). He tells us of the first time he had heard of Lumumba, and we see a photo of the murdered leader that was taken in 1960. We see how the subjective life of the narrator feeds into the totality of meaning, and is shaped by the wider political situation. The sequence shows how history enters the life of a person, and demonstrates the paradoxical autonomous dependency of man on his world. The narrator is at the same time both apart from and affected, changed and shaped by his relationship to the world in which he is situated.

This world, he finds, is becoming increasingly polarised by the dominance of capital over the representation of historic events. In one sequence we are shown three different media used to represent history. The first is a museum. The camera moves among the antiques and artifacts in a similar way to how it later moves among a black tie party of colonial elites. This movement is reminiscent of the way the camera moves in Battle of Chile (Guzman 1973, Chile) (Info here:boc.html). The second is a statue of black slaves in shackles. Here the film cuts sporadically, offering glimpses that, again, leave the meaning of image ambiguous. The film then cuts to a gigantic, revolving bust of tin-tin and his dog snowy. The camera holds for a long time while the sign turns slowly. There is little doubt left as to which object in the sequence has dominance.

The film shows this dominance as congruent with the narrators personal account of all the things he remembers the mainstream media calling Lumumba: “a madman…a communist…the Elvis Presley of African politics”. In this sequence, he speaks over a shot of a huge television screen that is situated in a public place, spewing out images (representations of the way the world is) onto the population. In speaking of “lost years” the narrator makes a connection between these dominant images and the loss of a history. He wonders about the gaps in his memory: “are these black holes more corrosive than the images they hide”? This suggests that the grey area between presence and absence of meaning, or as he calls it “black holes” can be filled with a cultural malaise that is commonly found in hyperstimulated societies.

The dominance of capital over the means to represent historic events (that is, capital’s control of the mainstream media) is shown as conflictual through a juxtaposition of the narrators relationship to the world with the ‘official’ account put out by newsreels, newspapers and other media. The latter, it can be seen, has a weapon called ‘objectivity’ at their disposal. One segment of the film is dedicated to dispelling this myth.

We are presented with a photo of Lumumba giving a press address. The narrator describes him as being “the only one in the room with a purpose”. Perhaps every one else is an actor, he ponders, “perhaps they have been told, look objective”. Following this we see an interview with one of the Belgian press agents, who exemplifies the paradox of objectivity by stressing that newspapers work hard to be objective, with the rider that “in saying that I am not being objective”.

The film shows how objectivity is one of the main tools used by capital to restrict interpretations of historic events to an either/or, about which the media reports ‘objectively’. This method is still used by the mainstream media today. It is not unusual, for example, for most ‘news’ stories to become simplified into an argument between the two main political parties (See medialens: index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=587:chilcot-inquiry-the-establishment-goes-to-work&catid=23:alerts-2009&Itemid=35). Nor is it unusual for the mainstream media to put it self in the service of capital by placing ridiculous amounts of blame on leftist leaders, and here we find a striking similarity between the media in the days of Lumumba, and the media that continues to attack Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez (See here: Lee+Salter).

The notion of objectivity is incompatible with the Heideggarian notion of a complex totality of meaning, and it’s affects can be seen as limiting access to this totality by simplifying the meaning structures through which we make sense of the world into an either/or. Lumumba shows how objectivity is a method used by those who dominate the means of representation. In one of the final scenes we are shown footage of Lumumba being arrested and beaten by soldiers. The victorious tone of the newsreel makes it clear that colonialism has won this history. After that, the narrator tells us that British Movietone wanted $3,000 dollars per minute for his use of this footage. He tells us a Congolese worker earns $150 dollars a year.

We see, then, how technology in the wider sense is placed in the employment of profit rather than the progress of all humanity. Not only that, we also see how even our own perceptions of history are fashioned by those who dominate the means of representation, and how the opportunity to step outside of this restrictive framework is reserved by those who can afford it. “Memories of a murder” the narrator says “are expensive”.

You can watch the full film of “Lumumba: Death of a Prophet” here:


Author: Anthony Killick

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