Soul Power: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Docu

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte is the director of “Soul Power,” which is being released July 10, 2009 by Sony Pictures Classics.

“In 1995, I was hired as an editor for WHEN WE WERE KINGS, a documentary chronicling the renowned fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (aka “The Rumble in the Jungle) held in Kinshasa, Zaire in the Fall of 1974. As that film neared completion, I became fixated on the notion that there was a tremendous wealth of material that was being sent back to the vault. This went beyond the typical situation where beloved scenes are left on the proverbial cutting room floor; rather, there was an entire aspect of the footage that was only superficially explored.

The neglected footage was the extensive coverage of “Zaire ‘74”, the legendary threeday music festival featuring scintillating performances by, among others, James Brown, BB King, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz, and the most popular groups of Zaire. Besides the concert itself, there was wonderful footage of the efforts to organize the festival, prepare the stadium, and the experiences of the artists who made the lifechanging journey to Africa. Knowledge of this footage created a burden: I felt that if I didn’t work to bring this material to the public that I would be complicit in obscuring these events, depriving people of the opportunity to “see” and “hear” what had transpired.

My original intention was to create a set of concert DVD’s. However, as I waded
through the hundreds of camera rolls and sound recordings with my gifted editor, David Smith, I was struck by the awesome strength of the material: from the small moments of intense humor and insight to amazing set pieces, the material was even more vibrant and compelling than I had remembered it, and there was a large portion of the material that I had never viewed because it was not relevant to the work on WHEN WE WERE KINGS. I soon concluded that a feature was warranted, and with the support and encouragement from David Sonenberg and Leon Gast, the producer and director of WHEN WE WERE KINGS, I embarked on making SOUL POWER.

Given the success of KINGS, I was nervous that “another” documentary would be
viewed as derivative and parasitic, and it would be judged harshly against its very accomplished elder sibling. Though still afflicted by this anxiety, I was convinced that I could make a film quite distinct — in terms of the focus, themes, style, and, most critically, the footage actually used — from KINGS. I recalled that the greatest difficulty in making WHEN WE WERE KINGS was how to deal with the overabundance of worthwhile material. At bottom, the fight and the music festival was just too much for one film to contain. Ultimately, the decision was made to place the primary emphasis on the fight, and Muhammad Ali’s seemingly impossible quest to regain the title. Given that the definitive film about the fight had already been made, I was released from the burden of having to balance these elements, and I could focus my efforts exclusively on the music festival, the artists, their entourage, and the process of pulling off this extremely complex venture.

Viewing the material for SOUL POWER was unmitigated joy — day after day a
beautiful, vibrant world came alive before my eyes. However, actually working with the material was daunting — between the hundreds of hours of film and sound and the expectations of WHEN WE WERE KINGS fans, I was keenly aware the difficult path upon which I had chosen to travel. Additionally, I decided that I would not include any retrospective interviews or archival materials; anything not part of the original film shoot was off limits. I wanted to make a film that would fully immerse the audience in all aspects of the music festival: the anticipation, frustration, joys, disappointment and, above all, the sheer pleasure of the musical performances. I wanted the filmed material — and the people and events it portrayed — to speak for itself.

We set about building scenes of everything and anything that that piqued our interest,
without regard for how it would all hang together. Needless to say viewing the first assembly, which ran for several hours not including the concert, was a painful experience. That is when I printed out a graphic of trail leading to the summit of Mount Everest. I relabeled the graphic “Mount Zaire ‘74” and used a sticky note to trace our progress up the mountain. Knowing that the “summit” awaited us at the end of the long and arduous journey helped us persevere; it also reminded us to be prepared, careful, and not to be led astray by hubris, which is the surest path to failure for mountaineer and filmmaker alike.

After a few months of editing we felt happy with the shape of the film. That is until we
screened it for an audience. Though there were many who appreciated what we were trying to achieve, the majority were perplexed, and urged us to provide more narrative signposts, to incorporate more information about the event, its meaning, context, and the consequence of the event. They suggested new interviews and archival materials< /SPAN> to clarify the narrative. One audience member stated flatly that SOUL POWER was “not even a documentary!” Such responses were quite sobering.

Instead of following these prescriptions, I sought to respond to the feelings behind them.
Many people became lost in the ambiguities of the material, so I attempted to craft a tighter more connected structure; others wanted to hear people speak about the meaning of the experiences, so I mined the footage for moments of reflection; some demanded more information on the context of the festival, so I placed explanatory cards at the beginning of the film. On a slightly different tack, a large number of people encouraged me to deemphasize the behind the scenes machinations of organizing the festival and to get right into the music. This was the most difficult note to hear as it ultimately entailed cutting a number of scenes that I found absolutely fascinating. Ultimately I am grateful for the passionate criticism that people all too freely heaped upon the film, and I am convinced that this “collaboration” enabled me to make not only a better film but one that was actually closer to the film I desired to make.

The diligent and perceptive on-the-ground direction of Leon Gast, and the phenomenal
camera work of Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles, and Roderick Young, among a half dozen others, provided me the opportunity to make this film in the vérité tradition. Their camerawork was reliably patient, economical, insightful, and aesthetically sophisticated. Many of the camera rolls struck me as near-perfect short films, where each moment beautifully flowed into the next, while weaving in ample coverage so that scenes could be condensed at will. In a very literal sense, these cameramen are great filmmakers, and my approach to this film was wholly dependent upon their superlative ability to walk into situations and to dynamically convey what was going on.

Throughout the editorial process I was informed and guided by the masters of vérité cinema: Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman. I was also emboldened by the great concert films of the era: GIMME SHELTER, WOODSTOCK, MONTEREY POP, WATTSTAX, and SOUL TO SOUL. Ultimately I hope that SOUL POWER is worthy of this heritage, but of course this is something that can only be decided by the audience. Ironically, having completed SOUL POWER, there is still a tremendous amount of material that has been left out. Fortunately, with the advent of DVD extras and the Internet, I anticipate ample opportunity to give this material a public life separate from in inclusion film. Most importantly, I intend to make the entire concert available, but that is another mountain.

Though the musical performances are very prominent in SOUL POWER, it was the
opportunity to explore the experiences of the participants that intrigued me most. For many of the participants this was a profoundly moving experience of going back to “the roots.” At times this is expressed directly, but more importantly it is found in the intensity of performances, the passion of Mohammad Ali’s diatribes against racial injustice, the joy of spontaneous music making. (I deeply regret is that I was unable to provide greater attention to the experiences of the African participants, but the footage simply wasn’t there). The music festival was the expression of a profound desire to forge musical, cultural, political, spiritual connections and to rediscover a common heritage and sensibility — it is this theme that animates SOUL POWER. Sadly this opening was all too brief, and the promise of greater understanding and interchange with the people of Africa is today very much diminished. However, with the election of Barack Obama, and its potentially transformative effect on policy and consciousness, I can not help but to hope that this will facilitate a resurgence of interest and interchange with Africa.”