A wide-ranging conversation with filmmaker Jeffrey Levy-Hinte leads to a discussion of actors who are reticent to speak about politics — or regretful when they do.
"I don't know why people are so afraid to express themselves. It's like the more freedom you have, the more afraid you are to use it," he comments.
Mr. Levy-Hinte was in the District to present "Soul Power" at the Silverdocs film festival in June, right around the time authorities in Iran and China were blocking their citizens' access to social-networking Web sites. People in those places, he notes, would be happy to be able to speak their opinion and have other people "listen to it, and print it." He sighs, "That is the age we live in."
It's not the age in which "Soul Power" was filmed. The new documentary finally spotlights the Zaire '74 music festival, dubbed the "Black Woodstock," which took place over three days in September 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
It was booked in conjunction with the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight boxing championship between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, although the fight ended up taking place six weeks later after Mr. Foreman was injured. The festival was meant to be as symbolic as the original Woodstock, promoting solidarity between Africans and black Americans, and featuring legendary performers from both groups — James Brown, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba and Manu Dibango, to name just a few.
Some of the festival footage made it into the 1996 film about the fight, "When We Were Kings." Mr. Levy-Hinte, who's making his directorial debut but has been a longtime producer with films such as "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" to his credit, was an editor on that Oscar-winning documentary. "It just came to me," he says of the idea he had 10 years later to take the footage and make a film focusing on the music.
It's a document of a very different time, he notes.
"Part of what makes 'Soul Power' work is not only that you're behind the scenes, because that's not uncommon. But it's totally uncontrolled, unscripted, unsupervised, in the deepest possible way. People speak their minds and do what they do and the camera people were there to get it. You feel that, it resonates through it. It's part of what I really enjoy about the film," he says, "because we live in such a stage-managed environment now; nobody really likes it."
Making a music documentary now would be another beast entirely.
"They're always more aware that it's going to be in the world in a certain way and going to be on YouTube and the rest," he says of musicians. "And acts of that scale, the publicist would be there, a representative of the record label would work to put forth images of the story they feel would be most profitable."
He laughs, "Not in Zaire in '74. It was real anarchy."
Just as anarchic, he says, was the filming itself.
"Any verite documentary is dependent upon the quality of the cinematographer. You can't fake it," Mr. Levy-Hinte says. "In a way, the work that they did allowed me to make this kind of movie. If they would have photographed it differently, in a much flatter, pedestrian way, I would have probably had to make a more typical film with the interviews and other things archival to make it more kinetic and more moving. But these guys were so amazing."
One of the cinematographers was doc legend Albert Maysles. He and the other cameramen broke all the rules.
"They were all in each other's shots. That would never happen today," Mr. Levy-Hinte says with a laugh. "They were even wearing white T-shirts onstage. Might as well put a neon sign on them."
That unpolished style gives the film a real immediacy, though. It opens with an electrifying performance by James Brown, whose song "Soul Power" gives the film its title.
"The beautiful thing is there was a camera three feet, sometimes less, right in front of James Brown. A real wide-angle lens, not a telephoto that would flatten him out," the director says. "A telephoto collapses everything, it feels flat and far away even if it looms large. There's something about a wide-angle lens that lets you feel much more present; it's much more dynamic."
As Woodstock itself proved, the musical can, in subtle ways, become the political. That's true of "Soul Power" and Zaire '74 as well — the connection between these musicians and the political problems in both their continents runs through the film. As Mr. Levy-Hinte points out with a smile, though, "Much of the articulated politics comes from Muhammad Ali."