Documentary John Bleasdale

Film Review: This Is Congo

★★★★☆

Daniel McCabe’s documentary is at times lyrical, at times shocking, frequently eye-opening and constantly fascinating. It’s an honest attempt to not only show that ‘this is Congo’, but also to ask the all-important question: how did the DRC fall into such disrepair?

“To grow up as a child in Congo, according to God’s will, is to grow up in paradise,” states a Congolese Colonel. “But with the wars, to be a child in Congo is misery.” Such is this reviewer’s ignorance of the country – informed only by Joseph Conrad’s famous novella, Tim Butcher’s Blood River and endless news reports of endless wars – that the opening images of hilly sheep country under a damp blanket of mist came as a surprise. It looks like Cumbria. McCabe’s film is constantly surprising, as well as shocking and tragic, but his unflinching mission is to create a broader understanding of the country, its politics, its geography and landscape, but most importantly its people: and to do so via the voices, so infrequently heard, of the Congolese.

The colonel we first meet is Mamadou Ndala, a career army officer whose patriotism and charisma have set him on a meteoric rise. His courage on the frontline is undoubted but, like a latter day Cincinnatus, he dreams of returning to his farm once the wars have ended. He is a nationalist who believes fully in the newly re-elected President Kabila. A darling of the media, he preens a little as he perches on the edge of an empty swimming pool to give his eulogies about the spirit of the nation and how the army is being modernised and taught, among other things, human rights. There’s some cognitive dissonance as we see one of his men being brutally beaten as he dresses, looking for his belt, but on the whole the impression is that of a “new” DRC.

Hakiza Nyantaba, on the other hand, is a 58-year-old tailor who hawks his invaluable sewing machine – “This is my oil, my salt and my bread” he says – into the displacement camp that is his new home, following a rebel attack on his city. We can fully understand the terror of the civilians fleeing as the camera captures a father desperately trying to protect his children as artillery fire deafens. He tells another story of dysentery, deprivation and relentless fear, even as he sits amidst the rubbish of the camp, toiling his trade. Bibianne, also known as Mama Romance, is a portly mineral dealer. She has acquired some wealth and position for herself by illegally trading in the minerals that should make DRC a wealthy country but whose wealth is instead the jealously guarded reserve of the kleptocrats. Even her relatively prosperous condition allows her only a bigger shack and rests on a precarious network of bribery that could collapse at any time.

The rebels also set up selling minerals while a shadowy military insider with a disguised voice gives us his history of Congo with the aid of archive footage. “The Congo has never been stable,” he says, recounting the CIA-backed ousting of the first post-colonial president in favour of army strongman Mobutu (who, after a business-friendly period of prosperity, renamed the country Zaire began carving it up). The rebel M23 are represented by a chatty general who has claimed a hill for himself and is buying up arms with the funds from mineral sales. Bordering countries Rwanda and Uganda are also apportioned some of the blame for destabilising their neighbour by offering funding and support for the rebel groups, most of whom are ex-soldiers whose dispiriting alphabet soup of acronyms is a fig-leaf to their desire to be paid more.

It’s the civilians in the middle who bear the brunt of the violence and lawlessness as the city of Goma – with a million inhabitants – falls first to the rebels and then back to the army, with the consequent destruction of property, rape and murder. There are shocking, horrifying images, but McCabe also shows the funeral of a young pregnant woman who died of dysentery. His camera shows the grief of a village finding the bodies of their murdered family members, a grief which turns to panic as the shooting starts again. This Is Congo is an angry film, yet one which is never blinded by its anger. McCabe offers no solutions – the UN Peacekeeping Force are rounded on at one point by furious locals – and no grounds for optimism. Yet even in its attempts to understand and to communicate that understanding, there is a defiance against the easy fallback of despair.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty