Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, Life of the Image

Through the starkness of Peck’s iconic choices and the poetic character of the voiceover, we are moved to a certain comprehension of the incommensurable.

Raoul Peck occupies a liminal space in filmmaking, blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction, between the personal and the political, as well as the boundaries of national affiliation.

In the context of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which is traditionally a venue for ethnographic film, he seems placed specifically to challenge the viewer into questioning the way images are made, how they circulate, and how they acquire meaning. In the symposium held at the festival, he claimed that he didn’t make a distinction between documentary and fiction but begins with ideas, characters, and recurrent themes relevant to the human condition, such as violence, torture, memory, and nationalism. He uses the content of his experience to play out those themes, and therefore uses stories of Haiti, Africa, and Europe to dramatize his ideas, because those are the situations and people he knows best. His legitimacy comes not from his association with a well-defined genre or a particular place, but from the force of his own international and personal perspective.

Lumumba: Death of a Prophet is a good illustration of Peck’s idiosyncratic, layered documentary style and reveals several strategies for instigating viewers to make complicated associations that reflect the complicated nature of the historical subject itself. The film is not a heavy-handed propaganda feature, but a provocative deconstruction of colonial and postcolonial Africa. In the wake of the democratic reform movement of the 1990s this look back to the independence struggles of the 1960s is highly relevant and charged with an analytic component. What were the causes of the failure of democracy in the newly independent African countries, and in what ways could they be overcome in the current struggle of “second independence”? What are the obstacles to African self-determination? Moreover, how does visual representation fit into the the political and historical project itself? Lumumba offers a unique opportunity to reconsider the life and legacy of one of the most charismatic and controversial figures of the 1960s independence movements and explores why he was unable to achieve his aims. It does not really to describe Lumumba’s policies and life in the ways of a conventional biography, but rather studies how he, or rather, his public image and legacy, were manipulated by politicians, the media, and time itself.

While he uses interviews, old photos, and archival footage, which are the traditional artifacts of history used in documentary films, he simultaneously subverts their authority, questioning their uses and their ability to reveal truth. He further highlights the subjective nature of historical documents by incorporating his own memoirs as the privileged son of an agricultural expert working for the regime that replaced Lumumba. His father’s home movies and his mother’s recollections are thus equally categorized as subjective. Every time he uses his mother’s testimony, he prefaces it with, “My mother told me…,” always reminding the viewer that the information comes from a particular source. These private accounts are not privileged over other accounts, but do provide interesting counterpoints to the commentaries provided by interviews and newsreels. In recounting these personal views he attempts to give voice to the alternative and differing perspectives that surround a critical moment of history. In addition, Peck’s own use of commentary voice-over serves to confront the way certain perspectives get repressed by the media and how the accounts of the proverbial “winners” of history triumph in popular memory. Consequently, the manipulation of information by the Western press and their complicity in the events leading to Lumumba’s downfall and assassination figure prominently in the film. Furthermore, he often shows images of a cold, indifferent, and affluent Europe and offers his film as a way of reviving and conjuring up Lumumba’s spirit and legacy to confront the guilty Europeans in their forgetful present.

Let us look further at how Peck uses photographs in a way that reveals their distance from lived truth, problematizing their referential status and revealing their flaws as evidence or testimony. In so doing, he makes a similar case as James MacDougall, who criticizes documentary’s inattention to the distinction between photographic records and photography’s place in people’s minds (30). For example, as we see the first picture of Lumumba that his mother showed him as a child and that he has kept to this day without knowing why, his voice-over points to the inability to make sense of the people’s motivations in the picture. In this photograph of a press conference, he tries to imagine what the characters are thinking and their relationship to Lumumba. He thinks some of them look bored, that some are there against their will, and others are there by coincidence. He sees Lumumba as the only one in the picture with an obvious sense of purpose, comparing him to Christ surrounded by followers, yet ultimately alone. Realizing the difficulty in reading intention from a photograph, he characterizes the members of the press as extras in a film that are told by the director to “look objective”. This shows that meaning is not inherent in the photo, but that it is imagined, shaped by our own desires and the critical distance provided by the passing of time. His viewpoint of Lumumba as a martyr figure leads him to make an analogy to Christ’s last supper which further sets up the viewer to see the entourage around him as his betrayers. The meaning evolves out of and is conditioned by his (and our) knowledge of what happened after it was taken. By itself and at the moment it was actually taken, the photograph remains frustratingly inscrutable.

Another instance in which he demonstrates how photographs mask as much as they reveal is when he presents us a picture of a young Mobutu with his family. They seem so normal, as he says “a family like any family”. There are no traces of the ambition that we now know he must have harbored. There are no signs of cruelty and greed in Mobutu’s face, but we search for them anyway, knowing that he amply exemplified both characteristics in his actions. It makes us wonder whether we often read into pictures more than is actually there, simply because we desire to prove the camera’s (and our own) observational powers. Furthermore, by making us aware of the difficulty of using photographs to reconstruct history, we begin to question our own understanding of history as given to us by images in the media. We see the tendency for the interpretations and explanations accompanying a news photo or clip to cover other possible interpretations. Peck’s voice-over reinterpretations and re-contextualizations serve to complicate this process of unequivocal signification, calling attention to the very gap between signifier and signified, so often disguised in authoritative documentaries.

Peck also juxtaposes images in ways which subtly draw out parallels that are difficult to articulate. When he shows us the pictures of the Congolese conscripted by the Belgians to work on the Ocean-Congo railroad, he comments on the fact that Belgians didn’t keep track of how many people died, because it was too horrible to be known. He then juxtaposes these archival photos with contemporary images of Belgians on the snowy streets of Brussels, on public transportation, and traffic coursing through highways. The human price paid for the Belgians’ modern way of life is made startlingly clear in a way that mere verbal articulation could not approach. The audience is not being told the point, but is encouraged to actively draw their own parallels and make their own meaning from the images.

Peck’s use of juxtaposition is not limited to the aim of making associative meaning across seemingly unrelated images, but also works to show moments of conflicting information. For example, he has two interviews with journalists talking about whether Lumumba was a communist. One white journalist claims he may have had ideas of communalism engendered by the Africans’ socially oriented lifestyle, but he didn’t know whether he was a Marxist or not. Then we see a black journalist who claims he has proof that Lumumba was a communist (though we are not given the actual evidence). This lack of agreement over Lumumba’s ideological stance destabilizes the West’s overwhelming categorization of him as a communist with Soviet ties. One wonders whether this Cold War scapegoating was simply an excuse to get rid of a troublesome figure they thought they couldn’t control, someone whose fierce anti-colonial and anti-Western brand of rhetoric did not bode well for the West’s hopes of retaining administrative presence and economic influence on the newly independent nation.

Besides questioning the archival images it presents, Lumumba also deals directly with the absence of images and information as well. A significant part of the film is devoted to the frustration of not being able to find or make the appropriate images. In one instance, Peck introduces a scene by saying, “The images have been lost, but the voice remains.” He then chooses to have a black screen to accompany the speech Lumumba delivers on the day of independence concerning the ill treatment of blacks during colonial times. This serves two functions. Firstly, it shows how the West has the power to destroy or censor material it finds objectionable. This is especially the case when most of the press agencies of the time were located in the West and did not allow certain material to be covered, despite the the wishes of any individual journalist. Secondly, it demonstrates the power of the voice, of orally conveyed information, to make a lasting impression. Even though Lumumba himself and his images were destroyed, the power of his orations continue to survive. This gains particular relevance in African contexts, where history is often conveyed orally through griot storytelling, especially in describing the achievements of a hero or individual (Stoller, 1). In Western culture, the image is often privileged, but in Africa, the spoken tradition remains important not only in storytelling, but as an aesthetic mode within filmmaking and literature. Peck capitalizes on the effectivity of oral strategies in this film since in so many cases, the images have been lost. His mother’s anecdotes as well as his own narration fill in the gaps where the images do not exist.

Another difficulty when trying to obtain the proper images occurs in Peck’s inability to go to Zaire to film. In place of contemporary images of Zaire, we are literally stuck with Peck at the Brussels airport as we are told that he would be met by the secret service if he flew to Zaire. We are all left to let the plane leave without us. The politics of censorship lie not only with the Western press, but also with Mobutu’s dictatorial stranglehold on any information that may weaken his image. Thus, the image is shown to be entangled by political forces on every side, emphasizing that image-making is ultimately and unavoidably a political activity. In addition, though certain images are available, they are too expensive to obtain. After he shows us the British Movietone newsreels of Lumumba’s capture and humiliation by Mobutu’s forces, he reminds us that this footage costs $3000 per minute. While we see Europeans walking down stairs, some carrying Christmas presents, he reminds us that the Congolese make an average annual salary of $150 and cannot afford to have access to those “memories of murder.” The whole idea of freedom of information is questioned as there are economic forms of censorship as well. The right to remember is cast as an economic privilege.

The whole difficulty in reconstructing the actual events of Lumumba’s assassination is not, however, only a matter of not being able to find or obtain images, but also concerns a larger problem of how to adequately represent a traumatic and deeply violent event. Rather than using actual footage or dramatic reconstructions when there are no existing images, Peck simply shows us seemingly unrelated images of Europe while telling us what happened. In one scene he shows us an empty European street and says, “I asked Cesaire if she remembers the Pentecost Hangings. No images exist of this hanging; they are all in my nightmares. That evening many people wept in the People’s city. Tears of shame, tears of helplessness.” Sounds of lamenting are in the background. Once again it is the sound and voice which survive while the image only reveals absence. We can speak of this empty image as a sign of absence, which confronts the abyss between experience and memory (MacDougall, 32). These signs place the audience in the position of making comparisons, searching for meanings, and feeling the pain of loss through an embodied absence. Another sign of absence is Lumumba’s body itself; Peck’s periodically reminding us that his body cannot be found, actually rei-nscribes his presence through the fact that there is no material evidence of his corpse. While he graphically describes the way two Belgians cut his corpse with saws and burned and dissolved his remains in acid, we roam amongst tuxedo-clad guests at a fancy Christmas party. The camera literally becomes Lumumba’s restless, avenging ghost as he “tickles the feet of the guilty.”

This use of signs of absence continues in his account of Lumumba’s actual shooting. We see only a slow zooming shot of trees in a savannah, meant to signify the tress against which Lumumba and two of his supporters faced the firing squad. We are told that they died with dignity, that only Okira trembled slightly before facing his executioners. Peck imagines that it must have been cold that night. As the zoom tightly frames one tree, the voiceover claims that one can still see the bullet holes in the trees of the savannah. This scene is important in it’s multi-sensory reconstruction of memory. The inactive, bodily cues we are given, the trembling and the coldness, stand in for the iconic image which is irretrievable and maybe even incomprehensible. This parallels the way memory is formed and recalled in our own minds; we remember experiences not only through images, but through the feeling of being there and our bodily responses to the event. Moreover, the slow zoom makes us search frantically for the evidence the trees might hold. As in Lanzman’s documentary of the Holocaust, Shoah, we must look at the empty place where atrocities occured and search for what happened there. As MacDougall describes, “We look in vain for the signified in the sign. In this constant reiteration of absence we are brought to the threshold of one kind of knowledge of history. In the failure of the sign we acknowledge a history beyond representation (32).” Through the starkness of Peck’s iconic choices and the poetic character of the voice-over we are moved to a certain comprehension of the incommensurable.

The importance of Lumumba is that it manages to achieve a successful synthesis between the poesis of memory and the analysis of the image as signifier. By inciting the viewer to explore the economic, political, and personal uses of the image, it presents the image as a contested terrain, rather than as an authoritative or representative artifact. At the same time, the use of evocative voiceover and the manipulation of time and chronology in the matter of an African griot shows us an ingenious strategy of poesis, that is, a highly self-conscious regard to the aesthetic processes at work in the filmic medium (Renov, 20).

The inclusion of this film in the Margaret Mead Film Festival is an encouraging sign that the field of documentary is moving beyond issues of preservation and fidelity into the negotiation of the issues of media power structures, the real political consequences of the contestation over historical and ethnographic images, and the role of aesthetics and narrativity within non-fiction genres.


MacDougall, David. “Films of Memory.” in, Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R. 1990-1994. Ed. Lucien Taylor. New York: Routledge, 1994. 260-270.

Renov, Michael. “Toward a Poetics of Documentary.” in Theorizing Documentary. Ed. Michael Renov. AFI Film Readers Series. New York: Routledge, 1993. 12- 36.

Stoller Paul. The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

About the Director

Prerana Reddy

Prerana Reddy is the Director of Public Events at the Queens Museum of Art, where she organizes screenings, performances and talks, as well as overseeing its community outreach programs. She received her MA in Cinema Studies at New York University and is a co-founder and programming collective member 3rd I NY, which exhibits South Asian film & video on a monthly basis. She is also a documentary filmmaker whose work has explored such topics as alternatives to juvenile detention and the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai. She currently sits on the board of Alwan for the Arts and is the director of their annual New York Arab & South Asian Film Festival. She also completed a three-year term on the board of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective. Prior to working at the Queens Museum, she was a curator and program administrator for the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center.