Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

War, fear and decolonialization

INTERVIEW / Director Johan Grimonprez has for more than 25 years worked with documentaries that addresses power, media and manipulations trough his more essayistic style. His latest film, Soundtrack to a Coup d’État, was screened at Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival – where he garnered the audience award for best documentary

Sitting down with the renowned filmmaker, Johan Grimonprez (1962–), is more than just a talk about his latest film, Soundtrack to a Coup d’État, screened here in the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival. It is more about an intellectual’s work – meaning a political-artistic oeuvre. He has produced several documentaries since I first watched his Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, back in 1997.

Soundtrack to a Coup d’État is definitely, as they wrote in Thessaloniki, «an explosive cocktail of geopolitics, jazz music, cold-war intrigues and colonization practices, having Congo and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime min- ister, as its backdrop.»

You can wonder why ‘soundtrack’ was in the title of Grimonprez’s 150-minute non-linear structure of a film:

«It is called Soundtrack for a reason. Because when I listened to the material, then it really directs where you head with the story. A lot of the political agency is also set forth by music. For example did many rumba artists accompany the politicians who came to claim Congolese independence at the Brussels roundtable. They actually ‘composed’ independence. The music is inseparable from that political agency. And other musicians – like Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach – lead that moment where they crash into the UN Security Council in New York in 1961 to protest against what was announced there – the murder of Patrice Lumumba and two of his colleagues. It’s also called the opening salvo of the black militant movement.»

In Soundtrack, we also see and hear how Louis Armstrong, from the vast archival material used to build this film, suddenly realised he and other black ‘American music ambassadors’ were sent to the Congo as a smoke screen – for the start of the Coup that happened at the same time. Armstrong even talked about renouncing his American citizenship and moving to Ghana … Grimonprez responds: «CIA even plotted the assassination of Lumumba at the same moment when Louis Armstrong was actually playing his concerts.»

«Civil rights are sort of intertwined with jazz music for a part. The black jazz ambassadors came at the same time as six independent African countries was admitted to the world stage of the United Nations – a huge shift for African independence, and a source of inspiration for civil rights leaders in the United States.»

The killing was also the accidental spark that ignited and then united oppressed peoples from the Global South to the racist Global North

Khrushchev and decolonization

A remarkable archive scene in Grimonprez’s film is when Nikita Khrushchev talked at the UN General Assembly in 1960, denouncing Western colonialism:

«You know, when we were translating his Russian with a student of mine, I fell from my chair. Because it has always been claimed in the press that he said ‘We’re going to bury the United States’. But he didn’t say that! He said we’re going to ‘bury colonialism’. It is a big difference. At the same time, his tirade denounced America as they were still lynching black people. And that was not disinformation, it’s true – but it was quite provocative. Of course, he had an agenda because he was trying to get the global South on his side. So, he was playing a game as well. He proposed a decolonization resolution – but the ensuing months that marked the end of the old Empire were the beginning of new colonialism. The flipside of that decolonization vote is that Lumumba became the ground zero of how the West then was going to deal with decolonization.»

Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat Johan Grimonprez
Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat, a film by Johan Grimonprez

Lumumba and Hammarskjöld

At the core is the killing of Patrice Lumumba, the freedom activist who wanted to free Congo from the Western exploiters. Filmmaker Raoul Peck – who Grimonprez says actually was on his producer board – in Peck’s documentary and fiction film about Lumumba (2000/2005), ends with this killing. For Grimonprez, this was more of a starting point in his film – followed by a lot of political events and disclosures.

One such is where a CIA leader involved in the murder says the killing was a direct order from President Eisenhower himself. They wanted to continue their exploitation. Jump then to another scene, where we see Eisenhower talks to an audience about Congo, that every country should rule themselves and be free, without any influence from outside. He is blatantly lying (not different from some presidents after him…). Grimonprez comments: «As you see at the end of the film, what was set forth in 1960 is actually still the same in East Congo today. Yesterday, there was a court case where they held companies and corporations accountable for conflict minerals and the genocide in East Congo. But the accusers lost the case.»

And, what about the role of UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld at that time? He is seen as introducing the hymn to United Nations in 1958 composed by the peace activist Pablo Casals at the General Assembly. There is also a flip side, although much of the work of Swedish Hammarskjöld was admirable. As in 1955 with his politics within the Middle East and arguing for peace in the Suez crisis, as Grimonprez remarks. But although not visible, Hammarskjöld, behind the scenes, didn’t protest the murder of Lumumba:

«During the Congo crisis, Hammarskjöld made a mishap. He was complicit in the downfall. His biggest remorse was actually that decision about Lumumba and his ‘hands-off’. Actually, it was General Alexander who was still the British general and the head of the army in Ghana, who was part of the UN troops, who was directly responsible for capturing Lumumba. Hammarskjöld was playing sometimes a schizophrenic politics officer, but behind the scenes, he was literally working against Lumumba.»

«You have to see the bigger picture of Hamas.»

A global apartheid wall

So much for the big powers and their secret operations, which can be partly disclosed in such essayistic archival films like Grimonprez’s.

Not so many of these powers have changed today, where militarism and big politics stand above human rights and against democratic rule. They have an interest in valuable minerals, just like the rubber industry that the Belgian kingdom sucked out of Congo or how African uranium is exploited by the nuclear industry. Today, the technology of electric cars and mobile phones push these powers to new exploitations in Africa.

We ask Grimonprez about his previous film, Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (2016, which digs behind the scenes of the apparatus of big military powers. Based on Andrew Feinstein’s book (2011) with the same title, we are exposed here to money and sex. As the prostitutes, politicians can likewise be bought.

We see in the film how corrupted South African politicians are bribed for 260 million dollars – as BAE Systems gets a deal worth ten billion with South Africa. But not least, as Gaza today is in everyone’s attention, we see in this 2016-film how Israeli forces attack Gaza regularly, often followed by weapon fairs showing their efficacy. Israeli weapon manufacturers depend on these wars and also cooperate with the American market – as U.S. big ‘donations’ of billions every year go to buying weapons from U.S. Yes, we can add, what about the US and their enormous weapon delivery to Ukraine and Israel today?

«All the weapons… I think it’s the same situation again. They found a big gas deposit right off the coast in Gaza: British Petroleum, Egypt and, of course, Netanyahu and the U.S.. But that gas actually belongs to the people in Gaza.»

In Grimonprez’s film, Malcolm X says, «If you defend yourself, you’re called an extreme.» Is Hamas extreme?

«You have to see the bigger picture of Hamas: Netanyahu was there at the origin of Hamas and supported it as a buffer
for Yasser Arafat. You must also see in perspective that Hamas is a very good tool to disseminate divide – divide and conquer. Michael Hardt (behind the book Empire) has called the situation for «global apartheid». It’s not just a wall in the West Bank or Gaza or a wall at the border of the US to Mexico. The border is also in our heads. There’s a global apartheid wall. We’re actually all colonized. That’s a shame. We are also manipulated trough media, part of a system where we live in a reality channel.»

We’re actually all colonized.

The culture of fear

In his earlier collage film, Double Take (2010), Grimonprez casts Alfred Hitchcock as a paranoid history professor, unwittingly caught up in a double take on the #Cold War period. Subverting a meticulous array of TV footage, Double Take also links to a nice ‘kitchen debate’ between Nixon and Khrushchev in 1959 – to the rise of television. Then, it moves from the Americans’ search for a new enemy after the fall of the Berlin Wall through the ambiguity of love relationships and murders in Hitchcock’s thrillers – to the continuous stream of images on YouTube and television. An early hint to today’s propaganda, and infusion of fear, as the ‘war on terror’ …

In the film, Michael Hardt is reading from Machiavelli saying that ‘to be feared is better than being loved’.

«He refers to Machiavelli and The Prince. You are set for two choices: One is fear, and one is love. Fear for the ruler can make people fearful. And so, they would abide by what his decisions are, whatever that is – like being sent to war and getting killed. But if it’s love, then the population is in charge. And they decide what the wellbeing of the bigger population is – which is democratic.»

«Cinema was the box of illusions, the building of dreams. But television was part of disseminating the culture of fear from the beginning of the sixties. We used to be consumers of domestic bliss, of commercials, you name it, but now we’re consumers of fear.»

Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp:/www.moderntimes.review/truls-lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review.

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