Both an unexciting and by-the-numbers history lesson and an inside-view, you-are-there look at an underreported armed conflict, the documentary This Is Congo is almost as full of contradictions as the nation it is trying to portray. Directed by New York-based photographer-turned-documentarian Daniel McCabe, who also shot the film, this investigation into a recent armed struggle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo premiered in Venice as an Out of Competition title and looked decent if not always great on the big screen.
Based on its topic, it should see interest from festivals and distributors specialized in nonfiction fare or with a focus on Africa or human-rights issues. However, it’s never quite clear who the film is targeting; it supposes the viewer has no knowledge of colonial and recent African history but might be interested in a film about an armed struggle that is essentially an offshoot of the Congo Wars and the Rwandan Genocide in and around the Kivu, on the nation’s eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda.
A war documentary without a clear target audience.
Though this is not explicitly stated, McCabe covers roughly the years 2012-2016, when insurgents of the armed March 23 Movement — only ever referred to as M23 in the film — were active in the area north of Goma, the capital of Northern Kivu. The rebels fought the National Army of President Joseph Kabila, whose government, it is claimed, is corrupt and doesn’t allow for the riches of the country’s plentiful mineral and oil resources to flow back to its people. To tell both this recent slice of bloody history and tie it to a very simplified view of the country’s past since it was first colonized by Arabs and later the Belgians, the director interviews four characters — two military leaders and two civilians.
Colonel “Kasongo” is a National Army colonel whose identity has been obscured and whose French dialogue is given a distracting English-language dub by Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankole (Manderlay). What’s fascinating about the colonel is that he deserted three times to join the rebels and came back to the army each time, where he was then promoted (it is suggested this is quite a common tactic to move up the ranks and increase lowly wages).
Unfortunately, instead of exploring this potentially fascinating contradiction, which could give some insight into the priorities and inner workings of both the rebel faction and the army, Kasongo delivers mostly platitudes about the country’s riches and colonial history. (The colonial period is “at the root of all our problems today,” it is said, a generalization that begs for more nuance if ever there was one.) McCabe illustrates the simplified history lessons with archive footage and photos that sometimes suggest connections that aren’t actually in the spoken texts, like when Kasongo vaguely talks about “leaders abroad” and McCabe shows a photo that features President Reagan. Did Kasongo specifically mean Reagan? Or did McCabe interpret Kasongo’s words this way (the U.S. president helped legitimize the rise to power of Congolese military leader-cum-dictator Mobutu during the Cold War)?
Colonel Mamadou (his real name) is the opposite of camera- shy. A boyish-looking military leader who loves a good crowd, the popular Mamadou was charged with defending Goma and defeating the M23 rebels, who had their designs on the capital of the most mineral-rich area of the country. His authority is so unquestioned that he doesn’t think it’s a problem for the cameras to catch his men flogging someone in punishment or have McCabe accompany him and his men to the frontlines, which deliver some of the film’s most dramatic if occasionally also very hard-to-watch footage.
Mamadou is the kind of charismatic leader who can help rouse men and win wars, but since he’s far away from the government in Kinshasa, his popularity risks being perceived as a potential threat. But McCabe, who also seems charmed by the man, especially in the film’s second half, never quite manages to tease out the real person hiding underneath the persona. There’s one shot of Mamadou in which he almost rolls his eyes as his military superiors, who have come down from Kinshasa, sing the praises of the president who “personally planned” a military victory that Mamadou orchestrated and physically fought for. But it’s the only moment in which, instead of a jingoistic cliche-spouting soldier, he seems to be simply human.
The two civilians are the tailor Hakiza — who complains that this is the sixth war he’s running from with his sowing machine — and Bibiane, aka Mama Romance, an illegal dealer in mineral stones that she often sells across the border in Kenya or Rwanda. Her philosophy seems to be that “you have to take risks in life.” Both add a welcome non-military perspective but they are clearly the supporting players here, with the colonels taking up the lion’s share of the film’s 91-minute running time and McCabe never really exploring what might be the emotional scars of living in a country in eternal conflict and with over 50 separate armed factions controlling small parts of land and of the mineral trade in and around the Kivu.
There’s also an intriguing if brief interview with Sultani Makenga, the leader of the M23 and himself a former National Army soldier. However, the documentary never quite makes good on what initially seems to be the suggestion it’ll treat both sides of the conflict equally, though it’s not clear whether McCabe thought that especially Mamadou’s story was simply richer and more interesting from a narrative point of view or whether he simply couldn’t get more access to Makenga and his men after that first interview.
Editor Alyse Ardell Spiegel and McCabe thus go back and forth between the colonial past and the recent Kivu Conflict and between their different players. But their material never quite coalesces into an insightful and powerful evocation of how the problems in the present are connected to the past in a way that a recent powerhouse title, I Am Not Your Negro, did. Because it focuses too much on Colonial History 101 — which potential viewers of this documentary will likely know at least a little bit about — McCabe is forced to omit things that are equally important for an understanding of the Kivu Conflict, including such particulars at the ethnic background of President Kabila.
Visually, the scenes of actual combat of course stand out. However, since the film hasn’t really created an emotional connection to any of the participants, the impact of these scenes is finally more akin to seeing a reportage about an armed conflict than something worth McCabe’s while to take all the risks he took to obtain that footage.
Production companies: Turbo, Vision Film Company, T-Dog Productions, Sabotage Films, Thought Engine
Voice cast: Isaach De Bankole
Director: Daniel McCabe
Producers: Daniel McCabe, Geoff McLean, Alyse Ardell Spiegel, Brendan Lynch
Executive producer: Ian Hague
Director of photography: Daniel McCabe
Editor: Alyse Ardell Spiegel
Music: Johnny Klimek, Gabriel Mounsey
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
In French, Swahili, English
No rating, 91 minutes