In the Congolese countryside lies a stretch of road about 30 km long. Along this road, locals heave bags full of charcoal on their rusty bikes, tipping over at every bump as they make their three-day journey towards the town’s major market. Here, competitive workers begin their trade in a business that sees thousands of Congolese locals fight to make a living each day as they sell handmade and local products.
This is the basis for Makala, the latest documentary from French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras. Makala follows Kabwita Kasongo, a 28-year-old aspiring farmer with a young wife and three daughters whom live in remote village called Kolwezi, in the south region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kabwita dreams of building a three-bedroom house with a backyard where he can grow fruit, vegetables and livestock as a way to provide for his family. Instead, he makes and sells makala to earn a living – makala: the Swahili word for charcoal.
The film opens at dusk as we see Kabwita make his way across the Congolese scenery until he finds a large tree – and with an axe he starts chopping. He chops at this tree with such vigour and, for what seems like a lifetime, we learn has taken an entire day. After hours of chopping, the tree slowly falls to the ground and Kabwita bows his head in what is not triumph of his hard work, but remorse as he prays to God for the strength to carry on.
Juxtaposed with Kabwita’s hard labour is his young wife Lydia who resorts to cooking local rats in a bid to feed her family. As well as looking after her three children, she picks out her husband’s splintered feet and encourages him to laugh at a joke or two after a long working-day. The following morning, her husband embarks on his treacherous journey to the nearest town market, where he hopes to earn enough to buy metal sheets to build a roof for his new house. As we’re following him on his long, and pain-inducing trip, a moment which looked to be a brief respite for Kabwita turns into defeat when a moving car damages some of his charcoal – all of that hard work lost in the wind.
Emmanuel Gras, whose previous documentaries include Bovines (2011) and 300 Souls (2014), picked up the Grand Prize for Makala at the Critics Week selection at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. His talent as a cinematographer is patent in his latest project as the beautiful Congolese landscape is captured impeccably onscreen, all of which is heightened by the beauty of Kabwita’s piercing eyes. It is these eyes that tell the story and allow us to truly understand the anguish and desolation that he obtains each day. It is these moments of understanding and contemplation that are most powerful and subsequently hardest to watch.
Makala examines the tribulations of desolation and solitude with such respect that it’s impossible not to feel compassion. The beauty of this film lies in Gras’ restraint: no narration is needed; little dialogue is incorporated – and the silence is deafening. It is the viewer’s duty to listen and not hear; look and not watch, and it is through Gras’ self-limitation that you can truly apprehend Kabwita’s struggle – and not a single ounce of contrivance is detected.