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Jørgen Leth on the making of a cinematic cycling classic

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Jørgen Leth is the director of some of the most celebrated cycling films ever made. Jakob Kristian Sørensen visited him in a Haiti where they headed to a voodoo ceremony and talked about the making of “A Sunday in Hell”

A Sunday in Hell, Jorgen Leth in Haiti

“Ask me how I got the idea,” urges Jørgen Leth. So I ask him how he got the idea.

 

“Ok, we finished Stars and Watercarriers. This film was made on a shoestring budget. I met Dan Holmberg the year before. We met during the 1971 Tour de France, he was there for Swedish television. Gösta Pettersson was riding the Tour that year.

 

“I liked him. I also found him very intelligent. He was living in America, and I liked that too. So. We worked very close together on Stars and Watercarriers, and his [cinematography] work was eminent. The whole film was shot with one single camera. I still think his work on that film is world class.

 

Read: A Sunday in Hell: 40 years of cobbles, grit and speed

 

“Well. The film was a great success and a year later I meet up with executive producer Steen Herdel. He almost orders me to make another film about cycling. He had seen Stars and Watercarriers and he loved it.

Jorgen Leth in Haiti“I tell him that ‘if so, I want to make it in a very different way. It has to be a one-day race, not a Grand Tour. It has to be a Classic. And I want all the cameras that I find neccessary. That’s my terms.’

 

“‘That’s a deal,’ he replied.

 

“I wrote only half a page. The very same day, the funding was in place. That was our start. I was on fire. We were pioneers!”

 

* * *

Jorgen Leth in Haiti

 

We are in a minibus. En route from our hotel outside town, we make a few stops. First we pick up three people in the centre of Cap-Haïtien. Mano, an anthropologist specialising in vodou. A mambo and her boyfriend. A mambo is a vodou high priestess, and I will meet plenty of these later that very same night.

 

The streets are dark. Boys and girls are hanging on every corner and in half open doors. Groups of young men stand and talk and laugh while motorcycles zig-zag through whatever obstacles there might be in the unpaved streets. I’m nervous.

 

Read: Floyd Landis in Vegas, redacted

 

We make another stop. Mano jumps off and walks into a store with bright white light. He is there to buy rum for the ceremony. Three bottles. One for the leading mambo (Barbancourt 5 stars). One for the altar (Barbancourt 3 stars) and one for Monsieur Jorgen -who has wintered in Haiti for many years- and me (also Barbancourt 5 stars). We will share it with other ceremony participants, Jorgen tells me. We drink it straight from the bottle, he says.

Jorgen Leth in Haiti

We pass brothels and pirate bars on the outskirts of Cap-Haïtien. This is still pirate area. This is the Caribbean and we are in the poorest country in the Northern hemisphere. No wonder tons of cocaine arrive in Haiti from Colombia and are later exported to the US with great profits.

 

We stop to buy petrol. The gas station is guarded by heavily armed men with loaded shotguns and fire in their eyes.

 

We continue out of town and, if the city is dark, then the countryside is darker.

 

* * *

Jorgen Leth in Haiti

“During the fall of ’75 we started planning. I wrote long letters to Félix Lévitan mainly about how highly esteemed their wonderful race was. First he declined, but after a few more letters he wrote that we had to come to Paris for a meeting. We bought tickets for the night train from Copenhagen to Paris, we boarded it with two bottles of good wine, really good wine, and the next day we woke up in Paris. The meeting was in the headquarters of L’Equipe.

 

“His office was behind a heavy sound-proof door. And there was good reason for this. Lévitan was known to make shady deals with French mayors. He was very polite and elegant, but hard as steel when he negotiated.

 

“He told us it would be impossible. Too hard. Too difficult. Too dangerous. I replied: ‘You must understand Monsieur Lévitan, that this film is financed by the Danish Ministry of Culture.’ I overplayed my role quite a bit.

Jorgen Leth in Haiti

 

“‘Okay,’ he replied. ‘I understand that you want to make a film about my race. As anything in this world, that has a price. How much do you want to pay for filming my race? I don’t know how much it’s worth, I’m not a film producer. I produce races. But let me help you. I own the story, the scenery, the location and all the actors. What would the price be for that?’”

 

“We were in shock. Checkmate.

 

Read: Arenberg Part One – the making of a Paris-Roubaix legend

 

“‘Go to the café downstairs,’ he says. ‘Have a coffee and come back in an hour and tell me what you want to pay. I have a meeting with a mayor.’”

 

”He was very cool. A brilliant negotiator. Pure mafia.

 

”We went and after a while we were back in his office. We tell him a price. He smiles and replies that he had imagined quite a lot more. I ask him how he, all of a sudden, has an understanding of film producing. He points at his nose and offers to ask the Minister of Justice if he will allow us to use low-flying helicopters during the race. That sealed the deal and we were happy.”

 

The full version of this feature was first published in Rouleur 17.8