Sundance discussion examines filmmaker Raoul Peck’s journey to ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’
Miniseries will premiere on HBO
Filmmaker Raoul Peck found himself in a state of indecision after the release of his award-winning 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Peck felt the film, which was based on the late writer and activist James Baldwin’s unfinished work “Remember This House,” said everything he wanted to say about the history of race in the United States.
“When I made this film, I had nothing to lose,” Peck said during a virtual panel discussion titled “Big Conversation: The Past in the Present, a Personal Journey Through Race, History and Filmmaking” that started streaming on Friday during the Sundance Film Festival. “If there was a film where I could say everything (I wanted) it should be this one, (and) as far as I‘m concerned, nothing else is needed. It’s all on the table.”
So when people began asking him what his next project would be, he didn’t have any idea, Peck told Tabitha Jackson, Sundance Film Festival director and the panel’s moderator.
That changed during a discussion he had with Richard Plepler, a friend who was president of HBO at the time.
“I told him I needed peace, time and maybe resources to pay researchers, but I wasn’t sure what the next step was,” Peck said. “He basically told me that I could have all three.”
That’s how Peck started his new project, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a four-part miniseries.
For more than a year, Peck explored different ideas surrounding the beginning of slavery in the United States to find the right narrative of what he wanted to say.
“I knew in terms of scope, I needed to tell the bigger story and start earlier, and tell it from the original white-supremist position,” he said. “We tend to see our current situation as the domination of one people over others. (But) when did the concept of white supremacy begin?”
The concept started in Europe, and Europeans invaded America, Peck said.
“That’s what we call ‘settler colonization’ in scholarly terms,” he said. “It’s not about a country that was basically empty and there were a few ‘savages,’ (but) that’s how the European story is being told.”
The story, Peck said, is being blurred by the notion that violence was committed equally by the colonized and the colonizer.
“But people do not hand over their land, their resources, their children and their futures without a fight,” he said. “And that fight is always met with violence.”
The story is also about land, and who oversaw and cultivated it, Peck said.
“(It’s) about who fished its waters, maintained its wildlife and who invaded and stole it,” he said. “It’s about how the land became a commodity, real estate, and broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.”
Like how Baldwin’s narrative served as a libretto for “I Am Not Your Negro,” the writings of three authors served as the basis for the new project.
The first was Sven Lindqvist’s book, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” which also provided the title of Peck’s miniseries.
A friend, who is a publisher, gave Peck the book.
“The whole story I was trying to tell all these years was right there,” Peck said.
The book examines slavery in Europe, Africa and the United States, and also looks at Germany and the Holocaust, he said.
The second was the writings of Native American activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
“I knew I have to be sure of what I’m going to say, and I had to find a Native American scholar who knew exactly what they were talking about,” he said. “Roxanne, who is, herself, of mixed Native American origin and Irish-Scottish on the other side, had written something that was the equivalent to the history of America. (Her) books opened another big chunk of the story.”
The third book was “Silencing of the Past: Power and the Production of History” by Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot.
“It’s the perfect link,” Peck said. “It gives the principal and theoretical construct that links all three, and the role that Haiti laid, not only in the wealth of Europe and France, in particular, but also in the creation of the U.S. Suddenly I have the bigger picture that made sense to me.”
Adding Trouillot’s book also brought Peck back to his own story of Haiti, where he was born and served as the ministry of culture, he said.
With these books in hand, Peck was faced with the task of creating a comprehensive story.
“(I had to) make sure to go through and take everything I could that felt vibrant, and make sure they are in sync with what they are telling me,” he said. “I put chunks of stories and sentences on the wall, not in a random way. I tried to follow the chronology of the books and some sort of dramatic chronology. And the most difficult thing was not to panic.”
Raoul Peck’s “Exterminate All the Brutes” will air in the spring on HBO. The Sundance Film Festival runs through Feb. 3. For information, visit sundance.org.
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