The Sisyphean task of making charcoal in the Congolese countryside and then carrying it in overstuffed bags on an overloaded bicycle to a city that’s a three-day walk away is the subject of the documentary Makala, from French director Emmanuel Gras (Bovines). This Critics’ Week entry follows the production of the coal by protagonist Kabwita Kasongo and then his endlessly long push of his bike, before he finally arrives at his destination, where he can sell his wares for a very meager profit. Less a lost chapter from Michael Glawogger’s gold standard in the genre, the cinematic masterpiece Workingman’s Death, than a documentary that’s interesting in a watch-at-home, National-Geographic-Channel sort of way, this lacks the narrative meat on its bones or a consistent cinematic quality or vision to make the jump from the festival- and human-rights circuit to any kind of commercial release in art houses.
Makala, which is Swahili for “coal,” was filmed in the southern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, around Kolwezi, and was reportedly the first documentary to be presented in competition at the Critics’ Week in Cannes (it screens in the HKIFF’s World Cinema sidebar). The choice makes sense, as the entire feature, though a documentary, has a clear — and also literal — journey and thus a clear narrative throughline, with the film edited in a straightforward and chronological manner by Bovines’ Karen Benainous.
An uphill struggle.
Gras handled camera duties himself and at times, though we never see or hear him, he’s actually very present, like when his camera swings around an impressively large tree and then looks up into its crown before finally settling its gaze on 28-year-old Kasongo, who has arrived with two pickaxes on his shoulders to cut down the wooden monster he needs to make coal. A handful of domestic scenes with Kasongo’s wife, Lydie, suggest a tiny little bit about his circumstances — they are very poor, with Lydie cooking rats over a charcoal fire for food — and about his character, with the able-bodied man unable to handle the pain when his careful better half tries to extract a splinter.
But there’s very little else in terms of background information or context, with Gras staging his entire documentary in the present, following Kasongo as he cuts down the gigantic tree, chops up the wood, covers it with an earthen mound that’ll function as a gigantic oven, lights the wood underneath and then transports the resulting charcoal to the city. To make the long trip worth his while, he needs to bring a lot of coal with him, so his product is loaded into bags that are then loaded onto a bicycle — Kasongo’s most expensive possession, the press kit tells us, though the movie doesn’t address this — to the point where the entire two-wheeler has disappeared under a massive mountain of bags that Kabwita can only push forward when walking next to it or behind it.
The film’s most suggestive images come during the days-long walk to the city about 30 miles away, as the protagonist obviously struggles to keep his bike and its cargo moving, especially when he has to go uphill. Gras does not shy away from zooming in on the superhuman effort required, with every puff and pant heard on the soundtrack and merciless close-ups showing the sweat pearling on Kasongo’s back in the midday heat. This midsection is necessarily very repetitive though a few shots are striking, as when Gras walks backwards with his camera to reveal that Kabwita isn’t the only coal transporter on the road but the third and last in a small group. The bulky silhouette of his wares on his bike against the lights of oncoming cars also offers interesting visual possibilities but like his nighttime shots elsewhere in the film, too much detail is lost in the murky, darker areas to make these after-sundown scenes really pop on the big screen.
The film was shot chronologically and this is clear in the increasing fluidity of Gras’ camerawork, which is less and less searching the closer they get to the city. Scenes at the market where Kasongo sells his wares and the subsequent stores he visits to buy what he needs — or rather, buys what he can with the little money he’s made — offer an appropriate sense of closure. This makes some scenes filmed during a spirited church service, where the protagonist is but one attendee among many, feel somewhat superfluous as it dilutes the film’s focus. The idea seems to be to suggest Kasongo is but one among many in his country, but since he’s already been an avatar without much of a personality for the entire film, that point was already amply made beforehand.
Production company: Bathysphere
Cast: Kabwita Kasongo, Lydie Kasongo
Director: Emmanuel Gras
Producer: Nicolas Anthome
Director of photography: Emmanuel Gras
Editor: Karen Benainous
Music: Gaspar Claus
Sales: Les Films du Losange
No rating, 96 minutes