'Elephant's Dream': Hot Docs Review

Elephant's Dream Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Associate Directors

Elephant's Dream Still - H 2015

Three ordinary stories are combined in this quite extraordinary documentary

Belgian director Kristof Bilsen's documentary looks at public-service workers in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, Africa's third-largest city

Three employees of state-owned institutions in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo are the nominal subject of Elephant’s Dream, a feature documentary from Flemish director Kristof Bilsen. But between the lines of these coolly observant tales of a female post-office worker, a firefighter and two security guards at a sleepy railway station, lies a wealth of more revealing stories about everyday life in Kinshasa. Already making the festival rounds, this Hot Docs title should appeal to upscale broadcasters and outlets specialized in documentaries while turning Bilsen into a name to watch.

Henriette works at the central post office in Kinshasa but her days are filled with waiting for customers that never show up. A telling shot -- the crisp cinematography was handled by Bilsen himself -- shows some letters waiting to be collected that have disappeared under a thick layer of years of dust and cobwebs.

At the Bas Congo stop, so few trains pass that the station has become a place where old men gather to enjoy peace and quiet and a small group of students comes to study, with Simon and his security-guard colleague Nzai having hardly anything to do but occasionally chase some poor kid from the tracks because a train might be coming ("might" being the operative word here).

At the headquarters of the Kinshasa firefighters, things are possibly even sadder than at the post office or train station, as their red trucks are parked on a square surrounded by what’s left of their buildings — which, irony of ironies, literally went up in smoke some years ago. "We will always be late," laments the most eloquent and perceptive of the employees that Bilsen interviews, Lieutenant Kasugna; there’s only one actual fire station in a sprawling city of some nine million inhabitants, and there are no hydrants anywhere so they need to keep going back for water.

The first third of the film simply observes the workers during their long days of not doing much at all, while interviews are heard in voice-over as the workers complain about wages, corruption and income equality. One astounding sequence, which Bilsen films in his signature, politely detached manner of full and medium shots that lets viewers analyze what they’re seeing for themselves, sees some people arrive at the post office to finally collect the first 10% of their wages from August of two years earlier.

Indeed, there’s a sense that it’s a miracle people manage to scrape by at all, since having a state job in DRC does not seem to guarantee any regular income. Surprisingly, for Western viewers anyway, interviewees don’t seem bitter or angry about it but instead are content to have a job at all and resigned to the fact they’ll get paid if and when they’ll get paid. “When you wait a lot, men’s minds will eventually rebel,” says Kasunga, before blaming the colonial period for the attitude of the Congolese toward work. But there's no evidence on screen that a revolution will happen anytime soon.

Part of what might quell a rebellion is, of course, hope for a better future, as illustrated in the film’s second half, when the grimy post office is transformed into a squeaky-clean money-transfer agency financed by Chinese and other foreign investors. Henriette, who, like many of her compatriots, is deeply religious, praises the Lord she was chosen to train for a whole year to become an employee there. But what initially might look very positive ends up being more of the same, much like the fire brigade’s attempt to put down out a conflagration that Bilsen captures as well, with bumbling, clearly not very well-trained or organized firefighters using equipment that has seen better days.

Thankfully, the film maintains a semi-detached quality throughout, never overtly suggesting that that raging fire -- not to mention the firefighters’ own HQ that burnt down -- have any direct metaphorical meanings. But also because of its precision editing, courtesy of Eduardo Serrano, this portrait of a handful of people trying to get by in dead-end jobs with occasional wages manages to suggest a wealth of information about the climate, atmosphere, daily struggles and modest dreams of ordinary folk in Kinshasa, the DRC  or sub-Saharan Africa in general. Colonialism might be over but what has replaced it isn't pretty, either. 

Production companies: Associate Directors, Roast Beef Productions, Man’s Films, Limerick Films

Writer-Director: Kristof Bilsen

Executive producers: Bram Crols, Mark Daems

Co-producers, Marion Hänsel, Mike Lerner, Kristof Bilsen

Director of photography: Kristof Bilsen

Editor: Eduardo Serrano

Music: John Wygens

Sales: Cat & Docs


No rating, 75 minutes