For years, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has been crafting eloquent correctives to Eurocentric and capitalist histories through acclaimed films like Lumumba (2000), I Am Not Your Negro (2016), and The Young Karl Marx (2017). His latest opus takes that project to its limit: Exterminate All the Brutes is a four-part HBO documentary series that retells the story of our world from a perspective rarely centered in such narratives—that of the colonized.
Drawing from three books—Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, which borrows its title from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; and Silencing the Past by Haitian-American scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot—Peck crafts a sweeping historical documentary that feels at once intimate and sweeping, familiar and new.
In this episode of the podcast, Film Comment editor Devika Girish chatted at length with Peck about assembling this expansive series, confronting the gaps in colonial archives, and drawing continuities with the contemporary crises of fake news and historical amnesia. Listen to the full conversation and read a condensed excerpt below.
I just finished watching all four hours of Exterminate All the Brutes. It’s really quite incredible. How are you feeling about it?
Like after working in the mine, I am exhausted. But I am happy to have gone through with this impossible project. When I started, I had no clue whether it was going to be a film. The only way to go into it was to take the risk, to tackle such a huge chunk of history. Because it is the most important chunk of history. It is basically the moment of definition of who we are today, of what the Eurocentric world is that has been dominating history for hundreds of years.
The series is based on three nonfiction books. At what point did you decide to adapt them?
Going around the world with I Am Not Your Negro, I realized that the phenomenon of not wanting to see the Other was similar everywhere. Whether it’s Australia, Britain, Brazil—the experiences were the same. But I felt that people were refusing to go all the way and to see beyond the very recent phenomena of racism. It started multiple hundred years prior. I had to document that. I had to deconstruct this story from where it started around twelve centuries ago. If we don’t have that wider perspective, we cannot understand the trouble we’re in right now.
When I read Sven Lindqvist’s book, it was the perfect way to grasp the whole story and make all the different connections about who started the killings, what kind of states and nations existed, what were the centers of different powers, etc. As I continued to work on the project, America became an important focus point, because with America started the theory of discovery. For the first time, someone put his boots on a territory and said, “This is mine.” And that changed the whole story. So I did some research, and I found Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book.
And the third book is by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who wrote a lot about the place of Haiti in that context. Because Haiti is the first country ever to have stopped slavery on the planet. And it did so against the most powerful armies of the world: the French, the British, the Americans, the Spanish. It was a nation of slaves, of Africans. That story changed everything as well. So I now had the three main components for my deconstruction, and they were solid. I knew that for a great deal of people [these histories] are news, they shatter their way of seeing themselves, their own country, their history. So I knew I had to be solid.
You approach these histories through a mix of various modes. You have archival footage, animation, scripted scenes, a voiceover. Which of these did you start with?
First of all, you have to understand that I am confronted with a reality. I don’t have 600 years of archives. Cinema [and photography] has been known for 200 years, and it was not dealing with my story. I don’t see myself on the screen today, still. I knew that if I had to reconstruct this story, I would have to use the material of the one that had the power—the one who ruled the world. I used Malcom X’s terms: “By any means necessary.” Meaning I have to find the right images, the right music, the right clips—everything I can put my hands on and that serves my purpose. How do I use, for example, colonial photos? I had to play with them in all sorts of ways to deconstruct them, and also choose photos where the subject is looking straight into the camera. Because that’s the only moment you can feel some sort of humanity despite the photographer probably having very condescending thoughts about the subject. I have to bring those victims dignity.
Make the audience feel perceived by the people in the photos rather than just perceiving them.
Exactly. They are people. They are not objects; they are not insects. That’s the debate as well about the use of words. Naming is power. The one who can name has power, and by naming he assigns a certain position in that story. In the materials I chose, I had to make sure I controlled them and that they were not telling a story I didn’t want to tell, or retelling the same story they’ve been telling for years. That’s how I approached the Hollywood clips. They are so transparent when you place them in the proper context, and they are mind-blowing because suddenly you say, “Oh my god, they didn’t do this.” Yes, they did. And hundreds of thousands of people went to see them and cheered them on. But what it meant for the rest of humanity was terrible.
By combining these different modes, you’re pointing to an alliance between the worlds of art, storytelling, and history. Why was that important to you?
Because I see art as one of the many ways by which we are indoctrinated. We are not living in an innocent world. [The idea of] “Exterminate All the Brutes,” as Sven says, you can trace throughout European history. It goes through every aspect of society, whether it’s art, music, writing, history, etc. It gives me different levels to deconstruct, and sometimes I decided to use animation because I couldn’t find other ways to show it. I had to invent my own images. The image of a Black man jumping in the sea, where you see thousands of skeletons that are at the bottom of the Atlantic… How do I find that image? I have to approach it in the most vivid way possible.
The scripted parts enable me to bring you emotionally to what it means to be the Other if you have been on the side of the dominant narrative. At one point I say, “What if the story was told the wrong way?” That means I’ve turned the mirror to you, and now you’re looking at yourself. And you can say, “Oh, this is me? That’s impossible. I can’t be that monster.” Yes, but you are. In order to be able to go into that process you have to leave a lot of prejudices aside. If you want to keep your assurances that you know the truth, this is not a film for you. It makes sense only if you are ready to question everything in a very non-threatening way.
Do you remember seeing a particular movie or image as a child that made you aware of how the West perceived you?
Yes! Everything I was watching. In Haiti, when I was younger, there were like 10 drive-in theaters, and in every city there was a cinema. We got most of the American films, and some European films. I grew up watching Tarzan, Hopalong Cassidy, all the westerns. Later on, in Congo, it was the same. In France, it was the same. Don’t forget, Hollywood had invaded the world. After the war, there was not a single country that did not have hundreds of Hollywood films being shown every day. I grew up on those films. That’s the funny thing. People from the so-called Third World, minorities, even women, all their lives, have to change characters to someone they can understand because they don’t see themselves on the screen. But you’re an audience like any other, and you want to root for the good guy, so you have to find a way.
In many ways, the series reinvents the tropes of conventional historical documentaries—the ones that play on the History Channel and public television. One of the most powerful ways in which you do that is through your voiceover. Can you talk about why you decided to do the voiceover yourself?
I initially thought of a dialogue, maybe two voices. Sometimes I would take the voice of Sven or Roxanne. But at one point, I had to use my voice for the editing. It became so organic that it was clear I had to use my voice. I’m too direct in what I say to let anybody else say it for me. I had to take the responsibility. One of the only problems is that, as you can hear, my English is not perfect and I didn’t want the audience to be distracted by my voice or accent. I specifically trained to make the voiceover. I had a coach who worked with me for months. I made sure that the voiceover was perfect. And of course, it makes everything else more credible. Once you put yourself inside your own movie, you have to go for broke. That’s exactly what I did. This is what I wanted to say, and I don’t know of any other way to say it.
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