(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)

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Subject: Movie review: Lumumba
Date: Wed, 27 Jun 2001 20:07:10 -0400

Movie review: Lumumba

By David Hunter

Jan. 19, 2001'sortby=movie&page=5&rid=195911

PALM SPRINGS -- "Nobody knows what happened that night in Katanga," and so begins a tremendously important film about the first elected prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, who served for mere months in 1960 and was permanently removed under still-mysterious circumstances 40 years ago Wednesday.

Incredibly, Haitian director Raoul Peck's often brilliant, utterly absorbing Lumumba" screened Monday afternoon at the Nortel Palm Springs International Film Festival in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Virtually at the same moment, Congolese President Laurent Kabila, a Lumumba follower and controversial strongman, was reported assassinated in what might be a coup and what might escalate a three-year conflict that some have called Africa's first world war.

A Zeitgeist Films release for summer that couldn't possibly be timelier for educating American audiences about the miserable legacy of European colonialism and Cold War politics, "Lumumba" is serious and disturbing. There's a large cast of historical figures, including a chilling portrait of Mobutu Sese Seko (nee Joseph Mobutu), the general who came to power in a 1965 coup, changed the name of the country to Zaire and was finally overthrown by the forces of Kabila in 1997.

The film opens with a depiction of Lumumba's ignominious fate -- his body and the corpses of two companions are hacked up and burned by two Belgian soldiers one windy night far away from any witnesses. With a voice-over of the French-speaking Lumumba (Eric Ebouaney) from beyond death's door -- the film's one notable break from a stringently realistic approach -- the nearly two-hour film skips his early life and begins in earnest when the passionate activist first becomes a popular leader in Stanleyville (now Kisangani).

The very complex historical events are deftly illuminated given the potentially huge cast (President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarksjold, Ernesto "Che" Guevara) and mountains of material. In the film's accompanying publicity, Peck (who made the documentary "Lumumba, Death of a Prophet") details how the project evolved, including early screenplay drafts that worked in the cliche of a white character to help open up the story to nonethnic audiences.

Thankfully, Peck and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer stay focused on the key events and such relationships as that of Lumumba with the Congo's first president, Joseph Kasavubu (Maka Kotto), as the two try to hold the country together against difficult odds. Lumumba and Kasavubu were elected by popular vote in the large, fractious country rich in natural resources soon after independence from Belgium. As so horrifically burned in Western conscience by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Belgium ruthlessly exploited the Congo for most of the 80 years it claimed it as a colony (think the city of Los Angeles ruling over the state of Texas in terms of size difference) and to this day has close ties with the country.

After imprisonment and torture for organizing opposition, Lumumba is allowed to attend the conferences in Brussels that made independence a thorny reality.

With a faithful wife (Mariam Kaba) and child who he fatefully refuses to abandon when his dream of leading a united Congo comes crashing down, Lumumba becomes the enemy of powerful regional strongmen Godefroid Munungo (Dieudonne Kabongo) and Moise Tshombe (Pascal Nzonzi).

From an immediate post-election problem controlling the white officer-led national armed forces to an inability to keep his enemies from making deals with the CIA and other outside interests while himself reluctant to turn to the USSR for aid because he fears for his own life, Lumumba is swiftly and ruthlessly backed into a corner with no hope of escape. The film pulls no punches in

placing the blame on Kasavubu, Kennedy and Godefroid Munungo (Dieudonne Kabongo), whose Katanga province is where Lumumba is taken to after a desperate flight from house arrest in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa).

Despite the presence of new faces in nearly every scene and a flurry of names and places, "Lumumba" rates as one of the most accomplished and vital historical films to be made in a long time that also succeeds as a fully engaging moviegoing experience. The performances are outstanding. Ebouaney is dominating, and one comes to completely sympathize with this intelligent, principled man. Among many stirring highlights is Lumumba's broadcast speech in Brussels that addressed Belgium's past crimes, though one can feel his fate being sealed even at this triumphant moment.

In French and Lingala with English subtitles and filmed in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Belgium, "Lumumba" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but one sorely recommended special engagement is an immediate screening for incoming diplomats and national-level elected leaders, including Secretary of State nominee Colin Powell and his boss.  

Zeitgeist Films
JBA Prods.

Director: Raoul Peck
Screenwriters: Raoul Peck, Pascal Bonitzer
Executive producer: Jacques Bidou
Director of photography: Bernard Lutic
Production designer: Denis Renault
Editor: Jacques Comets
Costume designer: Charlotte David
Music: Jean-Claude Petit
Casting: Sylvie Brochere

Patrice Lumumba: Eriq Ebouaney
Joseph Mobutu: Alex Descas
Maurice Mpolo: Theophile Moussa Sowie
Joseph Kasavubu: Maka Kotto
Godefroid Munungo: Dieudonne Kabongo
Moise Tshombe: Pascal Nzonzi
Pauline Lumumba: Mariam Kaba
Running time -- 115 minutes
No MPAA rating  ##


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