On proud display at a Toronto festival session with the documentarian Raoul Peck on Tuesday morning was the first requisite of any successful, old-school filmmaker: a healthy sense of self.
“When I have people trust me with their money, I am obligated to give them a great film, I am not obligated to give them a profit,” boomed Peck, when asked how he went about “selling” subjects like race and class in his films. The latest of those, I Am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin’s never-written history of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, is screening at the Toronto festival, among a record crop of 57 feature documentaries.
Peck’s staged conversation with documentary programmer Thom Powers was ostensibly about “Race and History.” But the subtext, or maybe the main text, was a lesson in how directors of his somewhat older generation managed to prevail. Peck, who at age 62 has more than a dozen films to his credit, used a bucketful of first-person singular pronouns to tell how he single-mindedly locks on his projects, and sees them through — or not — without compromise.
He described sitting with producers who would tell him to change a character, or lose 30 pages of a script. “No,” Peck would tell them. “Then there will be no project,” they would respond. “Then, there will be no project,” he would agree. And usually, he said, the producers would come around.
Pandering to an audience, or anyone else, is out of the question. “We are artists, we are all subjective people, we have a point of view,” said Peck. “It doesn’t mean we are right.”
As for film executives, Peck said they should be fully attuned to the filmmakers’ background and heritage. “We should be able to enter the room with somebody who knows where we come from,” he declared.
Powers described an apparent awakening to black film, which is heavily represented this year in Toronto with movies such as Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, along with the Baldwin doc. Peck waved him off. “I don’t believe in these moments,” he said.
He then reeled off a long list of somewhat forgotten black filmmakers, culminating with Carl Franklin, who had a breakthrough in 1992 with One False Move but has worked more heavily in television of late.
And how should those filmmakers be treated? “They should have a pile of money,” said Peck, and freedom to make “the projects they want to make.”