ALTHOUGH a hugely influential musician who pioneered the Afrobeat sound, and acclaimed for his social activism, Fela Kuti is less storied than the comparable Bob Marley. A new documentary, by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney sheds light on this complex and charismatic figure.
Through films such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Gibney has built a reputation as a documentarian unafraid to expose corruption and malfeasance amongst the great and the powerful.
Occasionally, Gibney celebrates a compelling subject, as he did with Hunter S Thompson (Gonzo), Ken Kesey (Magic Trip) and now the Nigerian musician. These were outspoken individuals who also had a political or moral element to their work.
But these portrayals also act as a valve for Gibney from his campaigning work. “I think balance is nice in work,” he says, citing the example of his late friend, writer David Halberstam.
“He would alternate these big books about American power with a book about sports. And I’ve done a few films about sports now, too. And so the idea of doing, in between the larger kind of moral and political investigations, to do stories about music or sports. The other aspects of human endeavour seemed appealing. And I needed balance, otherwise I might go crazy.”
Gibney’s work has threatened to send him over the edge, never more so than Taxi to the Dark Side, the Oscar-winning investigation of the murder of a taxi driver on an Afghanistan Air Force base.
“When I was making the film, which is all about torture, and a conscious policy of torture, insisted upon by certain members of the American administration at the time, I was going a bit crazy. I think those images were starting to have an effect on me, and my editor recalls feeling exactly the same way. The brutality was changing us as people.
“So, as it happened, the film I was working on about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, had all sorts of delays, so I ended up working on those two films simultaneously. And it turned out to be tremendously valuable and balancing. Hunter certainly had his dark aspect, too, but he was also an incredibly funny guy and to have that balance in my life turned out to be terribly important.”
Fela Kuti’s story, which had its Irish premiere at the Sugar Club in Dublin on Saturday, also takes place against a background of repression, namely the military dictatorships in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. Kuti was radicalised by the Black Power movement when he visited the United States in 1969, and his music became more political. This steered him on a collision course with the regime back home. As a result of his 1977 record, Zombie, which mocked the military as unthinking stooges, Kuti’s compound was destroyed and he was brutally beaten.
“There’s no doubt one of the reasons that I was drawn to him was because he is a figure of resistance against abuses of power,” says Gibney. “I’m almost reluctant to say the word ‘political’, because I’m not sure he was a great political figure, but he was a tremendous voice of resistance to abuses of power.
“And that idea of music as the weapon is a very powerful idea, because in the face of such brutality, instead of matching that brutality with more brutality, you know, going to war, using the same weapons, he uses the weapon of the human heart and, at the end of the day, there is a defence against brutality by art and I think art can have a kind of power that brutal dictators can’t extinguish.”
Just as music can bring joy to a beleaguered nation, as Kuti’s did, so sport can become a slave. Earlier this year, Gibney helmed a documentary, Ceasefire Massacre, for ESPN’s celebrated 30 for 30 series, which illustrated the tainting of a moment of national euphoria.
On the evening that the Republic of Ireland beat Italy at the 1984 World Cup, loyalist gunmen entered the Heights Bar in the village of Loughinisland, Co Down, and left six killed and five wounded.
“I’m what you call distantly Irish, so I suppose I’d always been torn up by the ongoing ‘Troubles’ in Ireland, and that kind of spiral of hatred that never seemed to let go,” says Gibney. “And so there was a kind of haunting quality to that story, to me, and the targeting of these innocents, right on the verge of one of Ireland’s most inspirational moments, in terms of the thrill of victory in a sport, just seemed terribly poignant to me. And the idea that these innocents still can’t get any information or sense of justice about what happened, so many years later.”
For the relatives and survivors of Loughinisland, the incident has not been resolved.
“We know people were killed,” says Gibney. “But we don’t know why, and why those gunmen were there in that pub that night.
“It’s too much of a coincidence to think it just happenstance that they were slaughtered while they were watching that moment of Irish unity, when these people were turned out in a very non-political town to watch the World Cup. It was almost like it was an assault on that sport and on that moment as much as it was on these people.”
Ever busy, Gibney has just finished a film on James Brown. “And I’m working on some more investigative projects,” he says, adding with a chuckle that he’s keeping them under wraps.
Perhaps somewhere right now someone is starting to shift a little uncomfortably in their seat.