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Raoul Peck
Matthew Avignone
A visionary, critically-acclaimed Haitian filmmaker.
One clear, brisk evening in 2016, the gardens of the Studios at Paramount in Los Angeles were alive with laughter and conversation. Dozens of documentary industry filmmakers and producers, colleagues and friends, were gathered to celebrate each other’s work at the International Documentary Association Awards. The title of one film seemed to be simmering at the back of everyone’s throat, waiting to boil over and enter the conversation. I Am Not Your Negro, the feature-length documentary by Raoul Peck, had launched that year and made great strides at festivals around the world, winning prizes and encouraging audiences to engage anew with the film’s subject, the famed US writer and thinker James Baldwin. I had seen the film (finally!) nine days earlier. It was like nothing I had seen before. Its powerful title, serene, stark imagery, and its urgency haunted my subconscious. One cut reveals the neck of a man who had been lynched and hanged from a tree. The brutality of that scene reveals 600 years of history in a single blow. It was so brazen in its delivery that it has stayed in my mind to this day. Peck’s simple but devastating cut reminds viewers of a basic humanity that has escaped us.

In the middle of the garden, people encircled Peck. Tall and gracious, deliberate in his movements, he is unmissable. I readied myself to make an introduction, preparing praise for his work as I approached. Peck had directed his first short film in 1982, but I Am Not Your Negro, which would eventually be nominated for an Academy Award, propelled his name to the forefront, bringing new viewers to his films. Over a career spanning more than 40 years, Peck has created non-fiction work that inhabits vital narratives around social injustice, from the scars of racism on societies and identities to stories of his homeland of Haiti, to studies of unfair housing practices. There was much to discuss, but as I neared, Peck was escorted away and he melted into the crowd.

This memory has stayed with me for seven years because it is so rare to connect with a filmmaker who addresses existential topics that the global majority care about. Tackling colonialism head on often means entering the topic via a very personal lens. Peck’s style of storytelling brings to mind the passionate writing of the Palestinian American critic and activist Edward Said, whose work I devoured when studying film, or the rigorous plays on words and confrontation with history and memory that mark Things Fall Apart, the debut novel by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

Like many, I have followed Peck’s output ever since. I was enthralled by Exterminate All the Brutes, a meticulously documented non-fiction series of such deep emotion it feels as though it might be viewed for the next century and continue to unearth details of history. In it, Peck embraces the personal even further, narrating its elegant dance of personal archival material, re-enactment, and essay-style prose that excoriates the relationship of the West to race, and pointing to the West’s utter failure to uphold the principles of humanism and compassion while blithely committing the crimes of settler-colonialism in the name of the hegemonic Western mythologies of progress and capitalism. At a time when the binge-watching phenomenon dominated documentaries, Peck chose to tell stories that were not pretty. Like Baldwin’s literary inquiry that went before it, Peck’s cinematic query is along the lines of: What is country and what is your role in it? His work turns delivered historical imagery on its head and directs it back to the viewer, back to the purveyors of power, and asks: Why do you need an Other? What do you fear? Gradually, this fear is named. And it is inside that hermetically sealed terror that the West defines its existence.

Peck’s latest film, Silver Dollar Road (2023), examines the basis of capitalist inequity in the United States as it unfurls the story of the Reels family, who are fighting to protect the land the family bought in the early days after the legal abolition of slavery. How can a Black family place any faith in a legal system designed to disadvantage anyone who does not reflect the purportedly manifest destiny of the powerful?

The film delivers a very different experience to that of Peck’s other works, injecting as it does new life and energy into a little-known story that effectively stands in for the losses of many. Peck rejoices in allowing resilient participants to tell their own stories, creating time and space for viewers to develop their own, very personal empathy. He forges connections with audiences and his onscreen collaborators in a way few others can. His approach is steeped in the dignity and courage the Reels command in the face of their legal battle. Just as significantly, Peck ensures his film illustrates how much the land means to the wider Black community. Silver Dollar Road insists on key conversations around race in the United States. Disenfranchisement is depicted in the now; each element of the film’s story lays bare profound inconsistencies that lie just beneath the surface of the social systems we so often accept without question. The deeper the film digs, the more it reveals structural prejudice that leads inexorably to generational inequity. The information is there. Peck invites us in; we just need to listen.

In a world where so much is pre-packaged for us, Peck’s work is refreshingly unpredictable. As viewers, it’s always exciting to anticipate seeing his new films because we never know where Peck will situate us in the story, nor how we’ll be asked to interact with its broader history. That sense of excitement is invaluable as we contemplate the documentary landscape today—especially as we hope to inspire new filmmakers to study the great works of non-fiction cinema, urge them to pick up a camera, and encourage them to channel Peck’s brand of determination when they tell their own stories.

This drive is particularly significant to emerging BIPOC filmmakers. For storytellers, Peck represents the courage to look deep into one’s own experience and examine the parts that define and delimit one’s perceptions of the world—then explore and deconstruct them by looking at them through a lens of humanity and equality. Today’s stories must acknowledge the violence, subterfuge, othering and racism inherent in dominant narratives and cultures. We must not shy away from these forces. Confronting them sheds more honest light on any given situation and reflects them back through a prism of new understanding.

Peck’s work is emblematic of an evolution in the storytelling strategies that characterize the current era of documentary. Today, the role of the creative documentary is not only to challenge mainstream systems and their values but also to ensure that, wherever possible, the perspectives represented on the screen come from a place of personal truth. Documentary films are increasingly international in their approach to meeting their audiences, and new outlets for discovering artistic, daring non-fiction exist—but their politics are more complex.

This year, Raoul Peck joins the list of documentary filmmakers honoured by Hot Docs who have shaped social and cultural conversations and worked to elevate this form of cinema we love and champion. We are proud to welcome Peck to the festival to present a selection of his films and are thrilled to have this chance to create opportunities for audiences to connect with the filmmaker, his stories and his values. As part of this tribute, the director has chosen to present two episodes of his Exterminate All the Brutes, as well as Chris Marker’s seminal essay film, Sans Soleil (1983). This latter selection is perhaps no surprise: just as Marker experiments with form, fact and the West’s fetishization of non-Western cultures, Peck is not afraid to break the limits of art with his work.

Peck is at his best when his view on history insists audiences come along on the journey. Listening to him speak makes it clear that his concern is with the often-invisible forces that operate in society and that shape us in ways that damage our conception of the Self. His brand of storytelling demands our respect because it employs methods that encourage us to build bridges to our past, the better to understand our present.

Raoul Peck’s films aim to change the conversation. I won’t miss another chance to encounter Peck. Neither should you.

Hussain Currimbhoy.

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