“I used to be fascinated by Khrushchev’s shoe-banging incident, yet I never realised it had to do with the politics of my own country”
– In the Belgian director’s new documentary, music meets politics – and the results are explosive
In his new film Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat [+see also:
interview: Johan Grimonprez
film profile] – shown in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance – Belgian director Johan Grimonprez goes back to the 1960s, when 16 newly independent African countries were admitted to the UN and, later, musicians Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach crashed the UN Security Council in protest against the murder of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. Combining discussions about decolonisation with Nikita Khrushchev’s piercing yells and Louis Armstrong’s singing, he takes a look at the things that some still prefer to ignore.
Cineuropa: Even though your film is dedicated to a very concrete moment in time, it feels more universal than that. Would you agree?
Johan Grimonprez: Yes; it’s sort of a template. It was the same with my previous film Shadow World [+see also:
film profile], although that was about the defence industry. Now, I am focusing more on my own country, on what it did [in Africa]. It’s still not talked about at all. I went down the rabbit hole, bit by bit. I used to be fascinated by Khrushchev’s shoe-banging incident, yet I never realised it had to do with the politics of my country. This whole event was a precedent: no heads of state were ever going to the UN before. For me, that’s what this film is about: it’s ground zero of how the West would deal with the independence movement. At home, these things were unspoken. You would learn about [DR] Congo at school, but you wouldn’t really learn about [DR] Congo. But if you’re talking about decolonisation, trauma is not just about what you have seen in a war – it’s also about what you perpetuated yourself. As long as my country is not dealing with it, we will never move forward.
There is a lot to unpack here, which is why I expected a more typical historical doc. And yet you put music first. This way, you don’t just talk about facts; you talk about feelings, too.
There are four protagonists here, but the fifth one is the music. Music has political agency; I really believe that. Take Louis Armstrong – he was being used by the US officials, trying to whitewash its politics by sending jazz ambassadors into the world, but he was also an active agent. At one point, realising what was going on, he was threatening to renounce his citizenship and move to Ghana. He was written into Cold War history, but he was also moving this history forward.
Then you have Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln – the independence movement in Africa was their big source of inspiration. I would say the music is very multifaceted here, and I thought these contradictions were quite interesting. We took it as our cue when moving into the editing. It’s important to question the rules of how you make films. In Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat, there is this constant play between fiction and documentary, between intimate stories and the global picture. I like it when you feel two things at once.
It’s a choral story. Were you afraid of featuring so many different voices?
No, because I don’t underestimate my viewers. They have become so savvy. They will understand it when you play with music-video elements and then you also have all these academic texts. It wasn’t an easy one, I will admit: we talked to so many experts and had many advisors coming to our studio. So much of this film was built on dialogue, but this polyphonic approach to history allows you to question things. There is always this distinction between speaking for and speaking with someone, and it was important to offer a platform where all of these voices could be heard.
It’s like what Jorge Luis Borges used to say: the book comes about not when you finish it, but when somebody reads it. With a film, it’s exactly the same. History is never complete: it’s always ongoing, and there is this constant rewriting of it. These round-table discussions were very long, but there was this one moment when everyone was demanding for Lumumba to come there as well. These were the things I discovered by going deep into the archives. Or those speeches by Khrushchev! It was believed that he was promising to “bury the USA”, but a former student of mine translated them again and he said: “We have to bury colonialism.” And that’s a very different statement.
That’s the beauty of archives: you go back to something quite well known only to discover there is much more to the story.
You have to do your research, but you also have to realise that the world has changed. All these images, they have to find their place once again – just like the “stolen kids” of colonial fathers, sent to orphanages and then to Brussels. That’s exactly how we thought about these archival images. They still have so many stories to tell.