Director Alex Gibney on Finding Fela, Julian Assange, and His Documentary Influences
Most of Alex Gibney’s documentaries are works of investigative journalism. His latest, Finding Fela, is the first one with an infectious beat. Finding Fela combines the life story of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti with footage of the planning and production of the Broadway play Fela! Gibney uses Fela! as a backbone against which to tell the real story of Kuti’s life; he will mention an anecdote and then show it being depicted in Fela! Kuti invented the genre of Afrobeat, which combined indigenous African forms, funk and jazz in lengthy songs — typically, each one took up one side of his 70s albums. His personality was contradictory, combining a rock star’s hedonism — he freely smoked pot and took 27 wives — with courageous political activism. Unfortunately, he succumbed to AIDS, a disease whose reality he doubted, in 1997. Finding Fela’s structure becomes looser in its final third, when it can no longer rely on the footage from Fela! (which only depicts Kuti’s life through the late ‘70s) and has to rely solely on images of the real man. The prolific Gibney entered this project as something of a hired hand, but he made a powerful film from footage largely shot by others.
Finding Fela opens tomorrow, August 1, in New York City and Rockland, ME, and expands through October. For a list of playdates, see the official website.
StudioDaily: The people behind the play Fela! began filming before you got involved. At what point did you come onboard?
Alex Gibney: They were filming the making of the off-Broadway play. I came onboard some time after that, after the play had already gone to Broadway. They were thinking of taking it to Africa, which they did do. I was approached by Steve Hendel, who was a prime mover and shaker behind the Broadway play. He asked me if I’d like to make a film about the cast and crew going to Africa and presenting this African story to an African audience.
Would you have been able to make Finding Fela without the Broadway play?
I don’t know if I’d been able to make Finding Fela without it, but I could’ve made a film about Fela. I thought the interplay between present and past was interesting. The play helped to rediscover him. It paralleled my own search, because I wasn’t an expert on Fela Kuti when I started. I had heard some of his music, but I had to dig in. The later Egypt 80 music is missing [original drummer] Tony Allen, who brought a certain funky vibe, but it has an almost transcendental groove. It takes you to a very spiritual place on one hand, but his lyrics were as angry as ever. My favorite Fela song is an Egypt 80 song, “Beasts of No Nation,” which we play rather extensively in the film.
Did you find it hard to give a cohesive feel to footage you didn’t shoot?
Not really. I think you acknowledge it as part of the story. We live in a remix culture. Some of the best music takes stuff from disparate parts and finds a way to make it cohere as a whole. That archival footage had so much worthwhile. As long as [Finding Fela editor] Lindy Jankura found a way to integrate it into the whole in the editing, it wasn’t going to be a problem.
Were you afraid of treading over some of the same ground as the earlier Fela documentary, Music Is the Weapon?
We use it extensively, and we also a bunch of material from the outtakes, which we found in a garage in Paris. It’s a great film, and people should go see it. You can do it — look it up on-line. This film is doing more than that. Finding Fela looks at the heart of the man by looking at the span of a larger life. Music Is the Weapon does a great job of capturing him at a certain point in time. Thank God it did, because now we have a record of all those great performances. It was made in 1982. Two French filmmakers began with the idea of making a TV documentary and stayed in Lagos for months. They just kept filming and filming and eventually went broke. Ultimately, the film came into the hands of Francis Kertekian, who was one of Fela’s managers, because they had hocked everything to make it. It was released at the time.
You’ve averaged about two films a year for the past few years. How have you managed to keep up such a prolific pace?
It’s a sickness. Honestly, if you look how long each film takes, they’re not made quickly. This film took two years. It’s a little bit like a law office that works on different cases. Sometimes films have their own rhythm, and you can’t find that footage you need to make it right, so you don’t rush it out. A film you’ve been working on for five years can come out the same year as one you’ve been working on for only a year and a half. It’s just when they’re ready. But it’s a lot of work.
How familiar were with you with Fela’s music when you started the project?
I wasn’t an expert, but the Broadway play jazzed me. I started going out and buying all his CDs. It wasn’t with the idea of making a film. I was just captivated by him and wanted to dig deeper. The Egypt 80 stuff is not as well-known.
[Russian feminist punk band] Pussy Riot obviously don’t sound much like Fela, but they’re the only contemporary musicians I can think of who’ve shown the same courage and desire to put their freedom on the line. Why do you think music has gotten so depoliticized?
That’s a good question. In the 60s and 70s, music was a much more powerful force for social change. It takes courage, and that’s a hard thing to come by. It’s also tough to find the right artist who can mix a sense of political engagement with great artistic achievement. Sometimes a strong political statement and really great art are not one and the same. It takes a really unusual artist to do them both at the same time. That’s a tough combination. You’ve got to find the commitment and artistry in one person or a group of people.
You explore the less PC side of Fela by having Bill T. Jones talk about his views of women, for example. Was it a deliberate choice to do so by having other people discuss it?
Well, there’s no narration for the film. There’s no other way to do it. It was certainly a conscious choice to explore some of the territory that, for all sorts of reasons, the Broadway play chose not to explore. I think the Broadway play did explore his contradictory attitudes towards women, but not the issue of AIDS. Bill speaks quite candidly about that. On the one hand, he says he was sickened that Fela was having unprotected sex with so many women. At the same time, as he was thinking about making the play, he didn’t want Fela simply to be reduced to someone who had AIDS. Bill didn’t want his own life to be reduced to that. So we tried to cover that and investigate it in a way that takes all that into account.
I haven’t heard it, but I’ve read that the last song he wrote denounced condoms as un-African.
One of his last songs did. He was determined not to see what was going on right in front of him. He was obsessed with the idea of the African source, and didn’t really believe the disease existed. Then, if it did, it could be saved by some kind of African spiritualism. That was part of Fela becoming both unhinged and a captive to his own sense of ideology, without seeing what was real. He had two brothers who were in the forefront of AIDS awareness in Nigeria, yet he completely disregarded them and refused to believe that disease could have a hold on him. He was in total denial.
When you made We Steal Secrets, were you prepared for the extreme reaction it got from the Julian Assange camp?
No. I wasn’t, but I probably should’ve been. In retrospect, I’d like to have that moment back. I think I could’ve elevated the dialogue a bit. You can’t really elevate a dialogue with trolls, but there were some things to be said that went unsaid because of the tremendous amount of hostile, unthinking criticism from Julian and his friends.
So I guess you never expected to get accused of being involved with the CIA?
That was a surprise. You’re talking about the Chris Hedges article? That was a rather dishonest article. It struck me as kind of cheap shot which had no basis in fact, done at the behest of Julian.
Well, I thought the structure of the film was interesting. At first, it seems to blow off the Swedish woman’s claims of rape and then it circles back and interviews her and explains the situation in far more detail.
It parallels the structure of Finding Fela. When I started the project, I assumed the whole thing in Sweden was a CIA put-up. I’d done another film, Client 9, in which some very irregular things happened as part of a federal investigation into Eliot Spitzer. So I was fully prepared to admit that the Swedish episode was some kind of espionage. It turned out not to be that at all. The fracas over it was a very clever way that Julian had of taking his personal failings and pretending they were part of some conspiracy.
Do you see yourself as part of any particular documentary tradition?
It’s hard to say. There are people whose films I admire, but I can’t say whether their work is present in my own. That’s for people like you to say. Marcel Ophuls, Errol Morris, who was very influential to me … I also draw inspiration from a lot of different kinds of film. Dusan Makavajev was very important to me. Also, the Maysles brothers. I hope to steal from them all and integrate it slowly into my own work.
How hard was it to find all the archival footage in Finding Fela?
Really hard, but it was satisfying. Jack Gulick, one of the producers, was great. We found incredible stuff in Lagos, Paris, Rome. That’s where we found the funeral footage. London, Los Angeles, New York. We searched all over the world. Whenever you get started, it seems like there’s nothing new to be found — or nothing old. Nothing’s gone missing. But there’s always something. You just have to find the clues. It’s like detective work.
People constantly compare Fela to Bob Marley, but Marley basically wrote catchy three-minute songs that were rooted in soul and rock. Fela wrote 15-minute or longer songs that were deep grooves closer to 70s Miles Davis.
That made it harder to get into Fela but also makes it really satisfying when you get there. The tradition inside his own songs is so rich, from choral church music to Yoruba traditions to jazz to blues to funk. It’s all there.