INTERVIEW: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte gives us some SOUL POWER!

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In the year of 1974, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in Zaire. Did you know about “Zaire ’74 – The Spiritual Connection”, A concert event that featured African American musicians with African musicians. This extraordinary event was to take place a few days before the fight and featured legendary performances by B.B. King, The Spinners, Celia Cruz, and James Brown. The newest Sony Picture Classic “Soul Power” gives us the inside look of the one of a kind concert that has been long forgotten – until now. Here with us to talk about the film is the film’s director JEFFREY LEVY-HINTE!

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Jeffrey Levy-Hinte: You know, I worked as a editor on When We Were Kings which draws on the same footage that’s in Soul Power. I always had the sense that we were committing a crime by putting all this great material back in the vault. It took me ten years to get my act together but basically at some point I decided you know I wanted to make a movie from it.

EM: So why did you choose SOUL POWER to be your debut as a director?

JL-H: You know in a way, it chose me. It was this opportunity that presented itself. I mean, I created the opportunity. So, its was there for me. Frankly if I had the money, I would have hired a director. By accident & by design, I ended up moving into the director’s role. I’m very happy with the decision because I got to make the kind of film I felt I wanted to see.

EM: How is working with Soul Power as a director different from being an editor on When We Were Kings?

JL-H: Well, it was very different in a sense that they are very different kinds of movies. Fundamentally as a editor, you are working to create this film, to put it together. However, someone else is ultimately in charge, telling you what to do, to do this or do that. Hopefully they’ll like the work you do but there is always the room to revise it. Sooner or later, a lot of strong ideas that were imposed and wonderfully so while making Kings. For Soul Power, it was much wide open that I could make any film that I want to make which was very gratifying. At times, it was very difficult because you have an often responsibility. You can’t sit back and expect anybody else is going to get the job done. You know you have to do it yourself.

EM: You had informed us earlier that it took nearly ten years to get this film off the ground. Can you elaborate on the process?

JL-H: The ten years was more of just hesitating and doing other films. The real meat of the work started in 2006. It was still a pretty long process. We’re transferring the film. Viewing it all down and editing it. It was about a good two-year process.

EM: When I was doing research on “Zaire ’74”, I could not find much information about it. Do you feel that Soul Power will bridge that gap of knowledge?

JL-H: I think so, its sorta like Woodstock or Monterey Pop which are fantastic films. What also happens is that those became iconic cultural events because they were incorporated in a film. Film is a very powerful medium for people to experience and to share. It kinda galvanizes those cultural moments. I hope that thirty-five years after the fact that I can partly contributed with Soul Power.

EM: What was your initial reaction when you were watching all this footage and all the stars in their prime?

JL-H: It’s incredible excitement, but it was also a hard task because you really had to keep yourself very focused & aware to really find the material that gonna work. It was also tedious since there’s 125 hours of footage. We only used 93 minutes of it. To get to those 93 minutes was a lot of effort.

EM: How did the promoters of “Zaire ’74” felt when you have brought the concert to the world on screen for the first time in 35 years?

JL-H: The primary person I spoke with was Stewart Levine. He really originated the idea and was one of the main concert promoters. He was very happy and supportive. In fact, he told me relatively recently that this was really the kinda film they wanted to make back in the day. That made me extremely happy because in my  mind I wanted to make a film in that style and serve as a homage to festival and the filmmaking process.

EM: For the artists who are still with us, have they seen the footage already?

JL-H: I am not sure. Bill Withers may have seen it. If not, I hope he sees it very, very soon. Big Black has seen it and Fred Westley has seen it as well.

EM: What is the one thing you have learned after directing your very first film?

JL-H: You just have to have confidence in your own views and your vision of the film, but at the same time you need to be humble and open enough to really listen to other people’s views and opinions. Not that so you can make a film that their trying to design but that you are trying to get closer to your own vision because its a very complex medium.
It partly depends on how other people view it. You are doing it for others and that kinda feedback is really invaluable. Be confident but humble.

EM: How did it feel when you received the news that SP was selected for the Toronto film festival?

JL-H: I was extremely happy. The festival did it all on their own. They actually accepted relatively late that I was on pins & needles. I always felt that Toronto was the right place.

EM: What would you advise upcoming editors & directors if they want to get into the biz?

JL-H: The most important thing to do, in my view, is to begin to associate with other filmmakers and really try to hook yourself into a community of people who are interested and engaged with filmaking. Ultimately it’s a communal effort. Hypothetically, you can make a film on your own these days but that’s pretty rare. That’s where you learn and get experience. That’s where you can really understand the process. You know you can get something out of books or something out of courses. Ultimately, it’s that community that gonna get you the basis to really create a career. I think reaching out to meet the filmmakers, attend the festivals, its all very important.

EM: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about at this time?

JL-H: I want to do an extended rendition of Soul Power since the concert footage is only 35 minutes of the film and we have 125 hours of footage. I wanted to do this so people can really see those performances which will be
fantastic.

EM: I agree, to see those concerts for the first time. It really felt that I was there when it happened To see the artists in their prime was such a thrill!

JL-H: There is more where that came from. I am working on a fiction film with director Lisa Cholodenko. I am also looking into taking a little break. It’s been a busy time over these last couple of years.

EM: Well, you truly deserve that break. Soul Power from Sony Pictures Classics opens in NYC & LA first in July 10th and in limited release later this summer. Jeffrey, It was a pleasure talking with you & I wish you all the best!

JLH: Thank you very much!

For Eclipse Magazine, I’m Dean Rogers