Directors: Kiripi Katembo Siku, Patrick Ken Kalala, Dieudo Hamadi and Divita Wa Lusala
Seen on a whim at a recent film festival, Congo in Four Acts is the result of a 9-month film training initiative for Congolese students, and the documentary omnibus paid off on my hunch. Beginning in the maternity wards with “Ladies in Waiting” where mothers are kept prisoner until bills are paid and newborns start life in debt, Congo lists the various ways in which the African nation stumbles around punchdrunk and weeping, bereft of shoes and wallet. Vonnugut reads Heller and makes a sad joke with Lumumba as the punchline. The “Ladies” beg for release from a bureaucratic limbo in which freedom is granted by trading in the family television to the hospital accounts manager for a $32 birthing fee….that explains why the manager has an office wall packed with electronics goods for the pawn shop. Essential fly-on-the-wall viewing for the handling of a possible teenage rape victim by the jaded hospital staff – it’s a shame she didn’t give birth to a toaster to pay her way out.
Treading further into the pain-cave, the rain-slogged, potholed, lashed, smokestacked, rubbish-stuffed streets of “Symphony Kinshasa” depicts life in the capital city. That life is now abject ruin in the broken roads of what was once “Kin la Belle” during Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign of Zaire and has now become “Kin la Poubelle” in the modern rays of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If the sight of littering makes you wince as much as it does myself this section in Kinshasa may as well be Cannibal Holocaust. I had an immense, grim desire to finally see the ecological documentary Darwin’s Nightmare after watching this section.
In “The Shrinking Press” the bloody devolution of journalism continues as it does along the bordertowns of Mexico and in the left-banks in Moscow, with the filmmakers discussing the difficulties of reporting on corruption with a bullet in your mouth. A series of talking-head interviews that overstays its point, yet still purposeful in its depiction of the local elections having a quality akin to a beauty pageant at a dire whorehouse. Food for thought: If the average Congolese only makes $1 a day, how could you justify buying a newspaper for $1 a day?
The films are book-ended with the brief and stirring “After the Mine” where the leftover crusts of European mining are hammered down to gravel for piecemeal by one generation, with the younger generation in waiting likely to turn that gravel into dust. I made a short documentary in film school under far more forgiving economic circumstances in my younger days and I’m ashamed at my result in comparison to what’s been achieved here. Was the cinematography astonishing? Not in the slightest: bare-bones camcorders at best. Was it weighed down with too much “tell” and not enough “show”? Certainly, as was my peers’ work in my graduating class. Could my positive reaction to Congo be tinged with white middle-class guilt? Not really, otherwise I’d be wanking over that infernal Precious film for your reading pleasure.
What made Congo in Four Acts a worthwhile experience for me was the rarity of seeing life inside the bubbling cauldron of poorer Africa – no charity drives with Sally Struthers, or kiddie militias, just life stories as they exist in their part of the world, new voices with a camera and a boom mike. A fine accomplishment from the four young filmmakers, and soon to be found in the programme guide of one of your nearby film festivals.