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Raoul Peck’s Poignant New Doc

Raoul Peck’s Poignant New Doc

In his critically acclaimed documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck surveyed James Baldwin’s legacy and its contemporary resonance through the writer’s own words. Working from one of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts, Peck wrote a screenplay that Samuel L. Jackson then read over archival images and videos. The Haitian filmmaker returns to this speculative mode in his most recent feature, Ernest Cole: Lost and Found, a propulsive and weighty documentary about the South African photographer who chronicled the inhumanity of apartheid for the world. 

Premiering at Cannes as a special screening, Ernest Cole: Lost and Found is an introspective memoir punched up with the elements of a thriller. The discovery of a trove of Cole’s photo negatives in a Swedish bank safe inspired Peck to reappraise the photographer’s legacy. This project comes on the heels of a minor renaissance for Cole, whose 1967 book House of Bondage fell out of print in the 80s and 90s before being reissued by Aperture in 2022. The images in this monograph — many of which Peck includes in the doc — revealed the violent segregationist policies that ordered South African life and forced Cole into exile. In 1968, the apartheid government banned the artist from returning, making Cole, at the age of 28, a stateless person. 

Ernest Cole: Lost and Found

The Bottom Line

A weighty meditation on the power of images.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield
Director-screenwriter: Raoul Peck

1 hour 45 minutes

Peck uses Cole’s letters, grant application, interviews and testimonies from the photographer’s friends and family to construct a deeply moving portrait of an artist who sacrificed his life to tell the truth. Cole was born in Pretoria in 1940 and started taking photographs as a child. His career began with freelancing for South African publications like Drum and Bantu World. Peck includes excerpts of interviews with Cole from Drum editor Jurgen Schadeburg’s 2006 documentary about the artist.

It was after encountering Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1955 book The People of Moscow that Cole decided he wanted to create a similar text for South Africa. A commitment to the truth, a dream of freedom and a wily ability to circumvent the bureaucracy of apartheid administrators propelled Cole to take pictures in places few people had ever been before. 

Ernest Cole: Lost and Found, like Cole’s magnum opus House of Bondage, is a witness account. LaKeith Stanfield lends his voice here, and the actor does not impersonate so much as embody Cole. His performance of Peck’s typically poetic text highlights the pain of the photographer’s post-exile existence. When recounting the darkest periods of the photographer’s life, Stanfield’s voice quivers with a poignant sorrow. Although House of Bondage sold well and contributed to the global pressures for South Africa to eliminate apartheid, Cole struggled to build a sustainable life abroad. Peck incorporates letters from the photographer to various benefactors, in which he asks for advances on projects and gestures at his declining mental health. The most vulnerable of Cole’s testimonies are the letters to his family, with whom he shares his struggles and homesickness.

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At the heart of Peck’s project are the more than 60,000 negatives found in the Swedish bank roughly seven years ago. They include images Cole made while living in the United States. Working with Cole’s nephew, Leslie Matlaisane, Peck tries to figure out who deposited the negatives and paid for them all these years. The bank is not forthcoming, and its representatives claim to have no record for this body of work.

Peck doesn’t dwell on that dubious insistence because throughout Ernest Cole: Lost and Found, it’s clear the filmmaker is most interested in the artist and his work. Much of the doc has the feel of a thriller, but the mechanics of mystery lose out to the poetry of Cole’s images. Peck leaves room for viewers to meditate on the photographs, offering, though the voiceover, his own close readings. 

Along with the South Africa images, Peck also delves into Cole’s scenes of American life. After the success of House of Bondage, the artist was asked to do a similar project about the United States, a nation with its own violent history of segregation. Cole never felt at home in New York, where he lived until he died in 1990, on the cusp of 50. Many of the photos, published by Aperture in 2023 in the book The True America, are striking in their parallels to the images Cole captured of his homeland’s apartheid, but they are also more distant. You can sense the artist retreating into himself until he eventually gave up photography altogether.

With this subject alone, Ernest Cole: Lost and Found would find an audience, especially considering its formal similarities to Peck’s Baldwin documentary. But the doc’s meditative tone adds further resonance. In an age of image inundation — when the violence of fascist regimes are on full display — revisiting Cole’s oeuvre serves as a reminder of the power of acknowledging what lays before you.

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