Thanks to Geno [Lechner], an actress who worked with me on Vergessensfuge [theatre, 2004] – and who knows Raoul Peck for reasons I don’t recall – we got free tickets to the afternoon screening of this Rwanda genocide film (of which there is another about, I understand from my glances at the press). I had met Raoul back in 1997 I think, in the offices of my then partner’s production office in Paris. He was working then on Lumumba (2000). I frankly don’t recall much more than that, except that both he and I were invited to participate in the Dokumenta exposition in Kassel, and I guess he got the same run around that I did: i.e., offers of production funds that never materialized.
Anyway, Geno went to get the tickets and the BO didn’t have any notice, so in her seemingly customary can-do manner she called Raoul on her mobile, and ended up meeting his entourage on the red-carpet, TV camera object, glitz and glamour entryway to the cinema, and came back with the tickets. In we were.
The film is a full-blown production, which I would guess if it had been done in America would have run $30 million or far more, maybe 70. What would I know about such things? It has mass scenes, military stuff, helicopters, explosions, lots of corpses, most of them very believable and close, rotted carcasses – to say a hefty production, the credit list of which went on and on and on. It was also shot “well” with lighting, cranes, aerials, the camera moves we associate with Hollywood.
Story wise, it commences with a didactic entry, a bit of history superimposed over a painfully slow zoom into an old map of Africa, finally settling in on Rwanda; then old news reels and films, a quick sketch of the Belgian colonial past, the pitting of ethnic sectors against one another for imperial purposes, the cold war, etc. This is all delivered with a slightly leaden and academic hand, which I think is Peck’s manner. He has a political tale to tell, and you are going to get it. Period.
However, along with the facts and figures, the background and all, in order to have to go along, we get the required “human interest” story, a nice, accessible and “heart-warming” domestic one. In this case, two brothers, both solidly middle class by Rwandan standards (and I suspect a bit higher by real Rwandan standards), one in the military, though not high level, the other a radio talk show host. The story hangs on them, their families and interactions during the build up to and outburst of the genocidal warfare which occurred. Along the way, to sketch out the broader picture, we get Washington DC and a Madeleine Albright surrogate, and Peck gets some nasty and justified, if rather broad and obvious, digs at America and its policies. Nothing like State Department obfuscation and BS in the face of raw murder to set up some straw men who self-immolate merely on opening their mouths. Peck does not let the opportunity pass. On the other hand he doesn’t really dig in any deeper, either.
In dramaturgical terms, the film oscillates back and forth in time, from various ‘then’s in 1990, 1992 and 1994 until the eruption and then to the present, which is given expository room for more didacticism via tribunals which are seeking “the truth”, “reconciliation”, condemning some for genocide, but letting the backlog of resentments spill out theatrically. Along the way we get the family story – a tragic one in which the Tutsi/Hutu split is emblematically embodied in one brother, a Hutu, having married a Tutsi. (Background: Tutsis were a minority which in Belgian colonial times were favoured and became the rulers; Hutus are the majority. From what I have read about all this elsewhere, it would seem Peck glosses over pre-Belgian divisions between these racially – yes, racially: Tutsi are tall; Hutus short, each with differing physical characteristics derived, yes, from good old genetic DNA splits from long long ago – and dumps all the blame on colonialism.) Tutsi wife and mixed children do not survive the carnage, which the other brother in his broadcasts on radio has egged along. Brother goes to visit brother who is imprisoned and awaiting his hearing in the tribunals.
This mixture and Peck’s relatively heavy handed exposition – gotta underline those political/ideological POINTS – lead to some stilted acting, with characters required to say lines which are weighted with “significance” but are absent from the real stuff of life. Seldom does the film begin to approach a poetic realm and, when it does, it tends to stick out (and is invariably accompanied with portentously bad music) as somehow misplaced, and as deliberate tear-jerking. These intentions lie uncomfortably besides each other: the filmmaker’s clear desire to inform on the history, the causes of the history, the implications of that history (racism, colonialism, money, imperialism, etc.) while at the same time jumping through the requisite hoops of commercial success aimed at accruing BO, or at least HBO’s backing for the big production values. So we get the domestic drama, the romance, the human interest story interlaced with the lectures.
Somehow these invariably conflict in dramaturgical senses, and surely in poetic ones, and the end result is a clotted matter at war with itself. For the spectator, it lurches this direction and that, a stern slap on the hands here, a soft tear-milking there, a brutal guilt-tripping, a satirical send-up of Western “human concern” articulated by the henchmen of the White House, all stirred together in an unpalatable mixture which probably fails as politics and certainly fails as art.
As seen under the penumbra of Berlin, with its most peculiar history (Hitler’s bunker less than a kilometre away; the Gestapo Headquarters remnants now housing an exhibition titled “The Topography of Terror” a lesser stroll away, and only 60 years ago in a nearby train depot other Others were rounded up to be discarded in similar manner by the so-called “civilized” persons of the West), this takes on a strange dissonance. The audience responded very favourably, though with a sense of subdued something incurred by a clear sense of collective guilt, which the film certainly meant to impose: while 800,000 or one million people were busy being killed, in part as the long-term consequence of Western imperial policies, what the hell did you do? Answer: nothing. What did your governments do? Answer: issued mealy mouthed BS and, since aside from 400 mostly white UN soldiers only some French were at stake, didn’t do much except try to get the nice whites out of harm’s way. And the spectator, perhaps having been led to a little bit more information than they had had earlier (remarked one post-screening conversationalist: “But I didn’t know there were only 400 UN soldiers there!)”, leaves, soured in spirit, subdued and, if the whole formula works as it should, then will convert this sense of guilt – no, not into meaningful action like refusing to pay their taxes to corrupted governments who did this – but into self-worth. I went and spent two awful hours watching this difficult, unpleasant film about how awful we are (through the prism of people I could relate to: i.e., nice middle-class professionals), and I feel bad, and then I feel good that I felt bad and that certifies my moral worth.
And the next time a Rwanda-type things rises – which is basically all the time, which is right now – the worthy spectator will do what they did the last time around: nada.
Which is what, as I watched, rumbled through me as it does every time I watch one of these things. As the endless cast list rolled by (two “personal assistants” to Mr Peck – and given the logistics of this film, if they were dealing with that, one thinks, well, maybe …; the “driver” for several of the name actors; the hairdressers; etc.), and I thought of the money spent, and the inherent self-glamorisation involved with the actors and, yes, with self-satisfied Mr Peck, the whole thing became still more bitter in the mouth.
Peck is Haitian. Upper-class Haitian. He is or was a kind of Marxist rhetorician, and this film certainly betrayed that. He popped up on stage in a spiffy and surely costly suit. He spoke eloquently (in German, and can do so in French and I think English, too), and if he got what would be the norm on this kind of production in European standards, he got 10 percent and wherever it got made it surely cost at least $10 million.
Cynically I tried to think about the tangible realities. Okay, most Americans know jack shit about Rwanda, US policy about it and so on. HBO will broadcast it, so perhaps some Americans will learn a bit (or will they switch channels within the first minutes as Peck’s heavy pedantically ideological hand comes down? Or as the domestic human interest drama gets gunked up as each politically “significant” line cuts it down to exposition rather than drama? Or …?). So maybe it will have some political impact. But somewhere the logic is corrupted and rotten. To get a “mass audience”, you must follow certain rules: a certain narrative, with romance/human interest, etc., etc. You must have certain “production values” which are costly. You must layer it with slushy music telling you how to “feel”. You must this and you must that and, when you have jumped through all these hoops and filled out the requisite forms, you can get the money to make your movie, pick up your 10 percent and show up in your spiffy suit to certify the validity of this whole process. And, surely in this case, feel good about yourself because you made this film for $X millions, and showed how awful Rwanda was then, and why.
For me it all leaves a bitter residue because, for 40 years, I have wrestled with this, trying to (not always, but most of the time) in some manner make things that are politically/socially/morally charged. In very differing manners, but always with the underlying intention that this is not just “entertainment” but something to provoke the viewer into thinking/feeling outside the norms which our society sets up, with the hope that this will lead to some consideration/improvement, some social and self-awareness. For some time I have considered this a delusion, both personal and social, as if culturally artists are in a sense encouraged to think that what they do matters, when in truth they are little more than playing chips in a larger financial poker game: “art” – be it paintings or novels or whatever – that “succeeds” makes lots of money; the artists, like anyone else would also do, is usually in effect corrupted by the money, and all involved succumb to this mutual self-delusion which, for example, culminates in something like the Oscars, which purports to honour artistic endeavour but really only honours money. And those who are not in this manner “successful” – among whom I would include myself – are reduced to miniscule blips on the social radar, allowed (if lucky) a handful of screenings in festivals (a most inappropriate setting for the absorption of serious work), are patted on the back, given a modest round of applause and then kicked out the door to fend for the rent.
So while I was watching quite effectively done sequences in which rotted corpses float in a swamp while our protagonists attempt to survive, or another in which a roomful of blood besotted young convent girl’s bodies lie, some still moving with the last gasp of life, and from which our protagonist lifts herself, the background murmur which really animated these sequences seemed to foreground itself: money, the rustle of money, which surely had something to do with the original slaughter depicted, and which washed over the spectacle which was laid before me, which whether it makes good (H)BO or not, all those involved were “professionally” paid, to say handsomely, and could to boot congratulate themselves for heroically taking on this subject, exposing it (perhaps) to a broad public and “doing good” in this instance by showing “bad”. Somehow over the entire process there is a stench of falsity, of bad conscience, which duly settles over the spectator, caught in the cross-fires of moral revulsion, guilt, seeming helplessness and, in this case, safe hindsight – after all, that was all “then” and this is now. The film ends, tapping on holocaust sentiment, with the phrase “never forget” lingering on the screen (though not long afterward, after the army of endless credits has passed by, really ending, twice, with the looming credit of HBO, just in case one was forgetting what this was really all about: HOME BOX OFFICE).
Quite some time ago – decades – I concluded (likely can be found in print somewhere) that in our culture, American/western, the dominant means of communication for many social things is “fiction” – movies, plays, novels, etc. – which, so the logic goes, permits all kinds of expressions of things – covertly and overtly, you name it – which more direct means of communication couldn’t accomplish. Fiction can get under the skin, into the conscience of the characters, and obliquely this can reveal to the reader/spectator aspects of society, themselves, their relation to society, which other methodologies cannot accomplish. Fiction can entice people into confronting and dealing with things they will not otherwise face. And then, of course, most people won’t read/see a non-fiction, and hence the logic of this argument is that in order to get people to confront these things one must take the route of fiction, tell “a story.”
Carried to its further logic, this naturally arrives at “the star system” – people won’t go look at a story if it is not graced with famous names (including famous on-going fictional persona, as in many detective novel series, etc.), with high “production values” – an emulation on a grand scale of the appearance of reality constructed falsely before your very eyes – as in the utterly clean, spotless, just off the prop-lot car which materialized in Peck’s film to drive away our characters (to be killed shortly thereafter), coming in from unpaved dirty roads, in which war was already in full tilt mode, yet somehow this car, which shortly would pass numerous roadblocks on leaving, arrived in this pristine condition, a kind of immaculate conception. Or, tipping the hands of those who made this, showing how really detached from the reality they imagined to depict they really were, never mind the adjacent pools of blood and convincing corpses. Our main characters were almost always neatly and cleanly attired, as befits “production values”.
Lurking inside this array of premises is another – that of the grand Market Economy Religion – in which that which profits financially also mystically, by the hidden hand of the market, somehow addresses all problems, be they practical, moral or ethical. If it makes money, it is good, right, and proper, at all levels, says this ur-text of our time.
Now, some decades later I still believe fiction is a social convention designed to thwart the process of dealing with our real problems by emblematically pretending to do so, though I would hardly anymore hang it on our culture, but would now be more inclined to say it is just a human species thing. Whether the “fictions” are cloaked in mythology, in religion, or other modes, they all function more or less the same – to self-servingly address social/cultural problems/realities, in a mode which both exposes and automatically, by its very means and structure, immunizes the participant from the consequences. (And as well, whichever the modality of delivery – myth, theatre, religion – the purveyors invariably are of the ruling segment and, if successful in their endeavour, wealthy.) Hence Peck’s film ends with the admonition “never forget”. Certainly in the Berlin setting in which this grand drama played out on screen, within shouting distance of the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the bunker of Herr Adolph, and a train-station which a mere 65 years ago was busy hauling other Others off for industrialized execution (nothing so primitive as machetes for our civilized Bach/Beethoven besotted culture here, rather a bullet in the back or gas), this phrase took on an extra warp of bad tuning. The film did not announce a prohibition, it did not say, “Next time, in the face of immoral governmental collective action, resist, don’t pay taxes, revolt, fight back.” Rather, looking backward instead of forward, it said, “We should remember.” And what should we remember? That a million people were slaughtered for somewhat complex and somewhat simple reasons, and that real-politick in the USA and Europe and elsewhere fed this, as did racism, and this and that, and that you (we) sat there and did nothing? Or should we remember that now, after the expenditure of X millions of euros, now in spiffy suits, having made a fictionalised replica of this piece of history, like Steven Spielberg or more pathetically Roberto Benigni did with the other more famous Holocaust, the “team”, as they were announced, who made this stand before you, receiving applause (and good money), in effect living off the echoes of this slaughter and, to be honest, “living well”.
A hop skip and a jump away from the applause is the spanking new Holocaust memorial, an acreage of concrete stumps, undulating next to Brandenburg Gate. Its designer is Mr Eisenman, of New York City, who won, as such things go these days, a hotly contested competition for who would “honour” the victims of this spasms of Germany’s culture. Not far away, at the edge of Kreuzberg, is the Jewish (Holocaust) Museum here in Berlin, designed by Daniel Lieberskind, another of the hot-shot architects of the day, and as well the chief architect of whatever will arise from the wreckage of the WTC. (Liebeskind has, seemingly inadvertently, become a kind of architectural necrophile, building his career on the corpses of others.)
Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial is a massive grid of squarish concrete columns, of slightly differing heights, up to 15 meters, inside of which one is invited to walk around and, like a maze, perhaps get lost – this, according to Liebeskind, reflecting the sense of disorientation and loss which the Holocaust victims felt. So goes the PR spiel. Like Liebeskind, Eisenman is a bit sloppy as architect, so these concrete chunks have all the convincing ethos of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally stadium, which he and Herr Hess imagined, consciously, would age with the grace of Greek ruins, leaving a romantic afterglow to the thousand-year Reich (which didn’t quite last so long). Eisenman doubtless imagined his rows would likewise have the columned historicity of Greek ruins, an aura of sombre seriousness hovering over them, the weight of 8 million dead lending credence to his handiwork. What one gets instead is a concrete maze onto which one is required to project the meaning, since it certainly isn’t in those klutzy blocks of concrete (which, raising a stench during the construction, turned out to be covered with a chemical manufactured by a German company which, like many German companies, had been complicit in the Holocaust, having supplied the Zyklon B gas for the chambers; it is said Eisenman – perhaps to demonstrate his “political correctness” – enjoyed the provocation instilled by this gesture).
Like Peck’s film showing down the street, Eisenman’s monument falters in the face of the reality which it purports to honour and remember, just as does Liebeskind’s tin-can museum not far away. In both cases of film and monuments, there is the sense of opportunistic careerism, a social climb literally over the piles of bodies of others not so long ago departed. In both cases the harsh irony that the climbers are ethnically of the same group of those whose bodies are being clambered over makes the matter seemingly all the more distasteful – ah, but who else but a Jew should make such a monument for the Jewish (and Gay and Gypsy and Communist and …) Holocaust? And who but a black man should deal with Rwanda?
I don’t really have an answer, though the real-world politics of the film and the architectural worlds, both anxious with money, reputation, backroom wheeling and dealing and the subsequent big payoff in wealth for the successful (the WTC replacement process was transparently heavy with this), all taint the process irrevocably.
As, in the case of the film, does the cultural imperative that “the story” be told by the conventions of fictional cinema, that history be dressed up with a “human interest” hook – a family, a husband and wife and children, all of a class-level the moneyed target audience “can relate to” – caught up in the bedlam of horror, the narrative whip lashing from history lesson to maudlin sentimentality, all carried out in the swooping camera moves which we expect of big budget “production values” and finally, leaving a glum and guilt laden spectator with the admonition, “never forget”.
The spectator will not though go home and refuse to acquiesce to their governments endless complicity in this; they will not cancel their planned vacation to 3rd world/cheap pleasure spot X; they will not send off a check for $500 (which they really could afford to do) to Doctors without Frontiers or something akin. No, they will ponder a bit, adjust their clothes, feel a bit good about themselves for having sat through this serious and difficult-to-take (for its veracity – the corpses, the blood, all mostly convincingly conveyed) film, and they will inwardly congratulate themselves for being “good” for having watched it.
Peck will go on to the next promotional gig and doubtless, for showing his capacity here, get another project in which he can hector about the nasty corruptions and ugliness of the US and other imperialist powers, dressed again in fictional cloth, but getting that important history in it too, and he’ll get, depending on the size of the budget, his 10%, and the show, as this is after all showbiz, will go on, as it must.
For myself, having chewed on this seemingly inherent contradiction when approaching my own work and “situation” vis a vis the real-world film business, it seems there is no conclusion to be found. Having wriggled on the hook of this dilemma, trying out different æsthetic strategies and tactics, different forms by which to attempt to address our realities, I’ve made a sizable number of fictions in a semi-documentary modality (in a real place, with real people, deriving the story by improvising: Last Chants for a Slow Dance , Slow Moves , Bell Diamond , Sure Fire , The Bed You Sleep In , Homecoming ); I’ve done “essay” works that have “documentary” aspects, analysis, poetics; I’ve combined fiction/essay and documentary (Angel City ) and …
And the brutal fact is that, in social-political terms, never mind the cruder matter of film world career/professional ones, my attempt is in my own mind a total failure. Yes, here and there are people who “like” and “appreciate” this work, even those who assert it is important, and some are “masterpieces”. Yes, in some senses, it does seem to work as I would like to think, reaching deeper inside, able to touch on some levels which more conventional work cannot. I am often told, in a manner of consolation, that, even if this work is seen by few, it is “successful” and, while I am game to quibble about in which realm, artistic or what, for me the bottom-line, in social-political terms, is failure. And perhaps an inherent, necessary and required failure, having to do with how society is structured and how it speaks to itself. In plain, crude terms, it boils down to a simple equation: to have a “mass audience” – which is to say in reality a “political” audience – one must speak within a certain range, and in that certain range are limits in æsthetics, form and, as if they were actually separate, “content”. In the film world this includes applying the formulas of storytelling, production values, “stars”. Along the way one must concede the validity in effect of the “Market System” which asserts that if star X can pull in Y millions of probable money, then their 6 weeks or months of labour is indeed “worth” 10 million or whatever.
To play the game you must buy the entire package, the whole implicit value system – a value system which innately produces both Peck’s film about the Rwanda holocaust, its backward-looking admonition that we must “never forget” AND produced the holocaust of which it “tells the story”. Sometimes in April, and works like it, are this system’s fraudulent antidote to the real function of that system, a lancing of the boils which the system manufactures like just another product.
In the face of such a circular system, I guess, reluctantly, I prefer to fail. And, while I think one should “try”, I frankly at my age, and after my experience, don’t really think that this (or any such) system can be really changed: it is how humans are, a fundamental evolutionary error which I think is rapidly drawing our particular show to a close. Each passing day seems only to confirm this grim prognosis, as the spectacles of Hollywood and the broader media pervade the world as Himalayan glaciers melt, and disaster – real disaster – lurks just around the corner. Musicals, of course, will be next.