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Why Raoul Peck Cast Lakeith Stanfield in Ernest Cole Cannes Doc

Why Raoul Peck Cast Lakeith Stanfield in Ernest Cole Cannes Doc

The setup reads like a thriller: 60,000 photo negatives were discovered in a safe in a Swedish bank, no one knows how they got there, and no one knows who paid to keep them there. But Raoul Peck’s Cannes-bound documentary Ernest Cole: Lost and Found aims to uncover the forgotten years of a photographer whose legacy and work could have easily been buried.

Peck, who was born in Haiti but fled the Duvalier dictatorship with his family, eventually landing in Berlin, felt a particular kinship with Ernest Cole, the South African photographer who captured the Apartheid state and published the 1967 book House of Bondage at only 27 years old. This led to the regime stripping him of his passport. Banished from his home country, Cole headed to New York City, where grants and assignments allowed him to continue photographing, but his past plagued him until his death.

Peck’s Ernest Cole: Lost and Found, which will be released stateside by Magnolia, is told using Cole’s own photos, many of which have not been seen by the public before. The documentary is narrated in Cole’s words, voiced by Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield, from a script that was written by Peck based on interviews with family and peers, as well as Cole’s own writings.

The filmmaker has long worked across both documentary and narrative film. “I make fiction and documentaries, and my fiction is always based on reality. I know how to transform reality into dramatic structure,” explains Peck of his expansive work, which includes the 1993 Cannes competition title The Man by the Shore and the Oscar-nominated and César-winning James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro.

Ahead of the Cannes Film Festival, Peck talked to THR about how Ernest Cole’s story speaks to today’s international conflicts. 

How were you introduced to Ernest Cole’s work?

I knew some of Ernest’s photos a long time ago. In the struggle against Apartheid, I studied in Berlin, where big numbers of the [African National Congress] were in exile. I didn’t know the scope of the photos, but those pictures are part of my personal archive. After the success of I Am Not Your Negro, a lot of people and estates wanted me to make films about their deceased parents or former president or former prime minister. So, the Ernest Cole Trust contacted me. They have been trying for years to make a film on Ernest Cole and that was never, for some reason, possible. At the beginning, I was too busy. I was deep into [HBO series] Exterminate All the Brutes. They had a major problem of digitizing all of the photos. All of my films dealt with archives and I’ve been a photographer myself, so I understood what it means to preserve negatives and a body of work. So, I contributed financially to help, and after two years I finally said, going through the material, “Wow, there is an incredible film to make.” 

Had you ever worked with an archive of this sizebefore?

Personally, it was unprecedented, particularly in that amount. For a photographer that was so famous in his time, in the ’60s and ’70s, who had achieved one of the most major photobooks that still today is considered a classic and with strong words about the Apartheid regime, it still was incredible that there was almost a 40-year gap and silence. Even in South Africa, it’s not that they suddenly discovered him and realized that he was banished and his book was banished. In any case, discovering that body of work, particularly all the pictures that were thought to be lost and the negatives of House of Bondage that nobody knew where they were, it’s an incredible discovery. A lot of the pictures in the film were never seen before. Magnum Foundation [the New York City-based documentary photography nonprofit] made a first selection of 3,000-something pictures because there’s a lot of work to be done, you need to forensically analyze the contact sheets to try to understand what the vision of the photographer was and what was his intention. I’ve been a photographer. Once you have your role of negative and you have your contact sheet, there is another level of work that starts. So, for most of those pictures, Ernest didn’t get to make his own selection. Magnum and other archivists had to really do that work from their point of view. I did my own selection, as well. My advantage is I had a story to tell so I could focus directly on the pictures that tell that story.

Did the images guide the narrative or did the narrative guide what images you chose?

The first important decision was to say, “I want Ernest Cole to tell his own story.” I am excluding all talking heads. It’s not a film of experts. It’s a film that asks, “How can I understand this man? How can I understand why he disappeared?” All the reports or the articles I read, it was always [saying] he became ill or he became desperate, but without giving any [evidence], as if it’s a pathological thing. He suddenly went crazy, or he suddenly became homeless. As soon as I decided to humanize him, I took seriously what he wrote and I took him seriously. I tried to be in his skin. I’ve been in exile all my life, although I don’t call that exile because it wasn’t my decision, it was my parents’ decision to leave my country [Haiti] because of the dictatorship. Haiti is in my soul every day. I talked to friends in Haiti, I’m aware of the gang situation right now. I have friends who are kidnapped. Imagine, Ernest Cole in New York, while people are being killed in South Africa. For me, it was clear that this was taking him down — the same way a Palestinian scholar must feel now about what is happening in Gaza, or [how] an Israeli scholar felt on October 7. Those things, you can’t keep them at a distance, you live through to them.

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It’s one thing to make a documentary about a figure, it’s another to make the choice to write a first-person narration in his voice. After doing your interviews and reading his writing, when did you feel prepared to write in Ernest’s voice?

I’m a filmmaker. I’m an artist. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a scholar. I’m not an archivist. So, I have great latitude to create. One of my favorite filmmakers is [French documentarian] Chris Marker. Chris Marker can make a whole movie with 10 pictures. You don’t have to say everything, you have to give the dots so that the audience can connect the dots. Whether I only had two people who knew him or 20 or 30, which is more or less the numbers I had, it would not have changed anything for my approach. You can make a documentary film with only just one person that you get for 10 minutes. As long as you decide you’re telling a story, you tell it with what you have. Of course, there are rules of accuracy and that’s what I really obey. I make sure that everything I said is truthful. Even if sometimes it’s my own interpretation, it comes from a truthful basis. I used to say my film is a result of what I got. I transformed them as I go. The editing process is a creative process and I continue my research while I’m editing, and the edit has an influence on my research. 

How did you cast LaKeith Stanfield as Ernest?

Once you decided Ernest is going to tell the story, you need the actor to be Ernest. My direction is always, “You are Ernest. You’re not a narrator. You’re not neutral. You are a real-life person with emotions, with sadness, with joy, and you react upon what you’re saying.” The same way I dealt with Samuel Jackson for I Am Not Your Negro. LaKeith is Ernest. He was one of the people on top of my list of maybe three or four because you still need backup. I like his voice, which is not just a plain, perfect voice. It has a certain sort of emotion, a certain sort of sorrow.

It’s like building a house, you do it bit by bit. What took the most time was for me to understand, what was his vision? What was his understanding of life? What was his understanding of the U.S. when he came? What was his reflection about living more than 25 years in Apartheid South Africa? I didn’t have much difficulty to guess who he was, because I’ve been through that myself. I’ve been stretched between my different realities. I’ve been depressed at times, by not being able to do anything about what was happening in Haiti. I made films. What could he do besides photographing where he lives? I have friends who were demonstrating with me in Berlin, and they are totally frustrated and depressed about the state of politics in their country right now. So that’s my fight. [The film] is about today and the legacy of people like Ernest. All the other musicians, artists, photographers, writers who died in exile, or who died under torture in South Africa. The film is bringing that to the forefront.

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