This is Congo
(USA, 92 min.)
Dir. Daniel McCabe
This is Congo will break your heart into pieces. The doc opens with an invigorating handheld shot as the camera follows several Congolese citizens through their village towards the hills. A woman sings and claps her hands. The camera operator changes position. The shift in vantage point reveals that one of the men in the group has a rifle strapped to his shoulder. Another man has a rocket launcher slung across his chest. As the men break from the village and cross the lush green hillside, a character says in voiceover that to grow up in the Congo is to experience paradise. When the camera turns to take in the full panoramic view, that sentiment seems to be true. Then, tragically and powerfully, the men wade into hell on earth.
Director Daniel McCabe provides an immersive and unflinching view of Africa’s longest running conflict in This is Congo. The film looks at a nation in which generations are raised in wartime. Over 5 million deaths related to long-running conflicts ensure that far too many lives have been touched by violence, but the film somehow finds notes of optimism in the characters who are brave enough to speak.
This is Congo centres on four voices that share their experiences surviving the nightmares rippling through the nation. Mama Romance, a mineral dealer and street vendor, explains the challenges of negotiating everyday survival from a civilian’s perspective. Hakiza Nyantab, a resident at a displacement camp, relates an all-too normalized struggle of homelessness and exile while using his trusty sewing machine to earn meagre wages. Colonel “Kasongo,” an officer within the Congolese National Army and former rebel, appears masked in shadows as he blows the whistle on systemic corruption that perpetuates violence and prolongs the conflict to serve the needs of an interested few. Finally, Colonel Mamadou Ndala of the Special Commando Unit of the Congolese National Army is the film’s tragic hero as he defends the city of Goma from the M23 rebels drawing close and leaving trails of blood in it their wakes. A good man is hard to find, but this wise and compelling character offers a clear-eyed view into a conflict that needs more than lone heroes to save it.
A decades-long series of interrelated conflicts is too difficult to condense into any review, but McCabe boldly and concisely uses the quartet of speakers to convey myriad traumas and aftershocks that account for the Congo’s present disarray. The film unpacks a domino effect of traumas inflicted by colonialism as man-made agendas of exploitation and greed pillage the idyllic paradise at which the opening scene hints. Images of grotesque violence appear in archival footage and present-day verité and there seems to be no end in sight to the carnage. The unwieldy account is admittedly messy and is inevitably disorienting as a viewer tries to make sense of the tangle shards of history. However, the film succeeds in conveying succinctly the cause and effect relationship between choices of the colonial past and consequences reverberating today.
The film gains a remarkable degree of access to conflict zones and brings audiences to the front lines as Colonel Ndala and his crew strive to curtail the aggressive assault from the rebels. Keep your eyes open no matter how difficult it is to watch. This is Congo works viscerally and has a great impact at an emotional level as McCabe’s camera watches life after life cut down or altered by violence. Some of the graphic imagery is unbearable, but the film implores audiences to bear witness to crimes to which previous generations turned a blind eye.
This is Congo screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at TIFF Lightbox on Saturday, April 21, 6:30 p.m. with an intro and Q&A by Daniel McCabe.
Other films at the fest include The Other Side of Everything (Apr. 22) and Silas (Apr. 25).