Film Review: This Is Congo

This epic, tragically devastating documentary not only puts human faces on Congo’s seemingly endless cycle of corruption and violence but investigates what lies behind it.
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“To grow up in Congo,” says a man at the start of Daniel McCabe’s lacerating new documentary produced in honor of the 58th anniversary of the country’s independence, “is to grow up in paradise.” This comes as McCabe’s camera swoops over lush green hills and deep forests that do indeed seem paradisiacal. But the turn comes soon, as we see rough roads jammed with refugees, children cowering at the unearthly roar of rocket launchers and artillery. Being raised in this place, the voice points out, is also “to grow up in misery.” Why the life of the average Congolese is that of misery and not joy is the question that this inquisitive movie asks.

To get at the answer, McCabe follows a few Congolese over the course of several years as the country is racked by the latest in a seemingly endless series of rebellions. Each of their stories is linked in some ways back to the Congo’s great blessing and curse: its great wealth of rare minerals. The movie’s most galvanizing figure is certainly Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the lanky, effusive and unbelievably patriotic commander of a commando unit fighting rebels of M23. McCabe follows Ndala, his body stippled with a dozen scarring wounds, into battle, the movie’s low ambient score and richly detailed cinematography heightening the drama.

The inspirational figure cut by Ndala—he is treated almost as a messiah by locals eager for a hero—is given context by Colonial “Kasongo,” an alias for a whistleblower who illuminates the dark tangle of causes breeding the incessant rebellions and pitiful government responses. Led by a former army colonel, M23 is just one of the fifty or so rebel groups scattered through the Congo’s eastern region, where dense forests and plentiful minerals provide both shelter and funding, while the army’s low pay and worse morale provide a steady stream of trained recruits. Meanwhile, neighboring Uganda and Rwanda keep backing various rebels and further destabilizing the Congo, while the corruption enabled by the extraction of minerals for foreign countries and companies keeps the ruling powers focused on short-term theft instead of the country’s wellbeing.

The day-to-day of the mineral trade is personalized by Mama Romance, a dealer who travels across the Congo and (illegally) into neighboring countries to hawk small amounts of tourmaline. It’s dangerous work, but as she notes, “Hunger will teach you how to eat.” The movie shows the human impact of this constant combat with the heartrending spectacle of Hakiza Nyantaba, a tailor who hauls his ancient and precious Singer sewing machine from one internal displaced persons camp to the next, mending garments to keep his family alive against all the odds: “This is the sixth war I’m running from,” he says with a wearied resignation expressed all over McCabe’s movie. 

Because it is landlocked and poor, many non-Africans likely can’t find the Democratic Republic of Congo on a map. McCabe assumes that is the case and so also provides a thumbnail lesson of the country’s history. It’s short and to the point, running from the legacy of Arab slave and ivory traders to the chilling depredations of the Belgians to the Congo’s taste of post-colonial democracy under the brief leadership of Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination was followed by decades of rule by dictators who kept the Congo underdeveloped and fractious, essentially stripping it for parts.

There is no shortage of filmmakers willing to document misery for the outside world to see. This Is Congo doesn’t stint on such details, showing a combination of battlefield horrors and grinding poverty that hardly seems possible to exist in the 21st century. McCabe stands apart not just for the impressive technical virtuosity of his filmmaking or his unblinking focus on the tragedy of the Congo, but for his refusal to chalk it up to generalized Third World chaos. Things happen for a reason, this devoutly humane but studious documentary argues, and until those reasons are dealt with, they will continue.

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