Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez, who examined the ties between the international arms industry and Western political establishments in his recent documentaries, the award-winning “Shadow World” and “Blue Orchids,” is set to explore its impact in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in his new project, “Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat.”
Grimonprez and producer Daan Milius are presenting the project at the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival’s CPH:Forum financing and co-production event, which runs April 26-30.
“Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” looks back at the hopeful rise of Patrice Lumumba, who became the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo in 1960, only to be deposed a few months later and executed the following year. Lumumba, who is also the subject of a new feature film project, had alarmed Belgium and the United States with his assertions that Congo’s riches should belong to the country’s people. He also came to personify the growing Pan-African movement, which likewise threatened Western hegemony on the African continent.
The film also delves into the CIA’s history of arts patronage and how it used Black American jazz artists, such as Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, to promote America’s image abroad, particularly in non-aligned countries. As part of an African tour sponsored by the State Department and PepsiCo, Armstrong arrived in Congo in October 1960, a month after Lumumba’s overthrow, a seeming diversion from the unfolding civil war triggered by the CIA-backed coup.
Speaking to Variety, Grimonprez says there is growing international awareness of Lumumba and of the atrocities committed in Congo during Belgium’s colonial rule, particularly under King Leopold II, who instituted slavery and oversaw the slaughter of an estimated 10 million people during his plunder of the country.
“There are political earthquakes happening in Belgium – they’re toppling the statues,” Grimonprez says, noting the protests that occurred in the country last year during the international Black Lives Matter demonstrations across Europe.
“I think they should also topple the Royal Palace and the Palais de Justice because they were all built with rubber money. That’s maybe a very drastic statement but that’s what it is. Brussels is basically built on rubber money, the avenues and everything, so toppling a statue is not really saying much. But we now have a Lumumba street.”
Grimonprez says Belgium’s dark history in Congo was never discussed when he was growing up despite its massive impact in Africa and the world. “It was the first genocide. We all talk about the Nazis, but the African genocide was much larger, a much bigger span. So there’s a trauma to overcome there.”
“Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” will trace the budding hope that was emanating in the Global South and being felt in the West in 1960, Milius says. “At that moment, in the United States and in Europe, in Africa and in Indonesia, around the world, there was this growing consciousness about the fact that things were fundamentally unfair, that they could actually change and that there was the willingness for this change.”
“There’s a connection between the Civil Rights Movement and what was happening in Africa and in the global picture that was an inspiration for people like Malcolm X, for Abbey Lincoln. A lot of people in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States were looking at nationalist movements and the Pan-African Movement in Africa and that was played out in the U.S. Jazz was a political tool as well.”
Grimonprez and Milius are eager to find partners at CPH:Forum to help with music rights.
“Because music plays such a big role in the film, we would love to work with a co-producer or an archival producer that has links to the music industry, especially to those who own rights to jazz music from that time period,” Milius adds. “That would be of great help.”
They are also interested in working with co-producers in France, Germany and the U.K. The project has already secured financial backing from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Flemish pubcaster VRT and Germany’s Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe.
The film will also delve into what the filmmaker says is the global corporatocracy that killed Lumumba and smothered those movements in the 1960s and continues to exploit Congo today.
“It’s still the mining industry,” Grimonprez adds. Now, however, the focus is more on lithium and cobalt for batteries used in smartphones and electric cars and less on the copper and uranium of the past. It was uranium from the Congolese province of Katanga that went into the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The element was a key factor behind the country’s tragic political history and bloody civil wars.
“All these corporations have private armies and they’re buying up the local population,” Grimonprez says. “These proxy wars are being pushed because of big money. It hasn’t changed.”
“Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” will have parallels to “Shadow World,” which examined how the international arms industry shapes foreign policy in the U.S. and Britain, particularly when it comes to Africa and the Middle East.
The system was already in place in 1960, Grimonprez says. Today the defense industry continues to be a multinational corporatocracy that doesn’t stick to national rules, but it is nevertheless the political leaders that serve as its representatives.
“It’s what [author and journalist] Chris Hedges calls ‘a corporate coup d’etat.'”