With Black History Month approaching it’s finale, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at a film about Patrice Émery Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Congo, and the key figure in Congolese independence from Belgian colonial rule. Don’t start yawning because this isn’t the epically long biographical type of film, but instead, Raoul Peck delivers a wonderfully inspirational movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s without problems.
Lumumba tells the tale of a man with the dream of an Independent Congo. The film opens with this man, Lumumba, heading towards his ominous fate. Bodies are chopped up and thrown into the fire. It’s almost as if Peck is saying, “welcome to the independence struggle”. From this point we are taken back to the beginning of the story, from Lumumba as a beer salesman. Well, everyone has to start somewhere. Russia and the US get involved (as usual) and then there are even more issues.
First piece of advice before watching Lumumba, do your homework because this movie doesn’t offer a comprehensive history lesson. Much of this has to do with the pace of the film which progresses very quickly. One moment Lumumba is selling beer and next minute he is PM of an independent Congo, but the build up seemed to be simple, lacking the gusto that it needed. The result was choppy with seemingly pointless interjections like the scenes with Lumumba and his wife, the latter receiving scanty airtime, and their relationship did not develop, nor did it really kick off.
Having said that however, Lumumba had enough power to see it through and the fantastic cast is to thank. Eric Ebouaney’s representation of Lumumba is moving as he delivers an array of defining speeches even as the power slips from his grasp. He stands defiant in a room full of army officers with guns may we add. Certainly a gutsy thing to do. Conflicts with military head Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas) and President Kasa Vubu (Maka Kotto) are electric, clashing ideologies and personalities, all the things that lead to a civil war. Descas is sadistic as the power hungry future dictator and Kotto is perfectly diplomatic in contrast to the extremity of Lumumba and Mobutu. The balance, the struggle, and the tension are excellent.
Visually, the film hits home hard. Peck knows how to create that shock factor, especially when capturing the execution of Lumumba and his two compatriots. The gunshots reverberate through the deadly silent woods and not only are key figures dead, but Peck captures an atmosphere of pessimism and suppression, devoid of any hope, confirmed by the figure of dictator Mobutu sitting on a throne-like chair.
There is something bittersweet about the message of this film. We are drawn in by the inspirational figure of Lumumba, his tenacity, vigour and passion. But at the same time, we can’t be comfortable by the promise of a dictatorship that looms at the end of Lumumba, especially as we have been on a journey through the hard fought independence of the Congo.
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With the global population growing, it may be surprising to think that the world is actually becoming smaller. But in fact with rapidly developing technology and its infinite possibilities, the other side of the world is not so far away. The most important of these advances is cinema, a medium with the power to traverse cultural boundaries, entertaining as it charges forward.
Film is truly a cultural exchange as in the UK we experience the excitement of Bollywood, the thrill of Japanese film, the drama of French pictures and a plethora of other World Cinema. Conversely, Hollywood film and British cinema is transported around the earth constantly in dialogue with other film industries.
Bollywood, described by Forbes.com as “the world’s most popular movie industry”, is the Mumbai based Indian film world. Churning out more than 800 films a year, Bollywood is growing phenomenally and being viewed around the world in the Middle East, South East Asia, Africa and Europe, especially in the UK.
Bollywood’s increasing influence on popular culture in the UK is evident with Herculean-bodied Hrithik Roshan, the King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan and the stunning beauty Aishwarya Rai among the stars in Madame Tussauds, London. The latter has even appeared in Hollywood hit The Pink Panther 2. Khan was also an esteemed guest on Late Night With Jonathan Ross.
Particularly in the UK, Bollywood has found its way onto Channel 4 who frequently air World Cinema and have a Shah Rukh Khan season in the pipeline. Popular movies such as Bride and Prejudice and Slumdog Millionaire draw upon the Bollywood characteristics: forbidden romances, superb choreography, and an array of colour coupled with enchanting soundtracks.
Of course, other countries are as much a part of World Cinema as India. Pictures such as Volver (Spain), La Vie En Rose (France) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan) to name but a few, have found tremendous success in the UK.
The importance of World Cinema is clear from the prestige of the film festivals abroad such as Cannes and from the exclusivity of “Best Foreign Language Film” at the Academy Awards.
So whether you know it or not, World Cinema is very much a part of our film watching experience and has permeated into popular culture. Expansive and increasingly available, World Cinema gives a fresh perspective to our Hollywood saturated viewing experiences.
(Originally published in York Vision newspaper)