Kinshasa Kids: NYFF Review

Puzzling Congolese import offers a compelling look at street life

Marc-Henri Wajnberg blends fiction with documentary in Congo quasi-musical.

NEW YORK — Gripping in its depiction of the plight of "shegué" children in Kinshasa, who live on the streets by the thousands, Marc-Henri Wajnberg's Kinshasa Kids offers a thin narrative whose main purpose seems to be to give what should be a staggeringly downbeat film a feel-good ending. Interest at arthouses is likely, though some viewers will be bothered by the picture's uneasy blend of documentary style with manufactured drama.

Viewers walking in cold would have every reason to think Kids is pure verité. As Wajnberg observes life among the poorest citizens of Kinshasa, his crew is hassled by corrupt policemen; other subjects complain about being filmed. But as subjects' lives entertwine, with a storyline coalescing that plays like an impoverished echo of familiar "let's put on a show" musicals, it becomes clear that much of the action has been scripted.

What isn't staged is the way Wajnberg's eight young stars live: Either abandoned or mistreated by their families, they are accused of witchcraft and left to live on the streets, sleeping in packs for safety with even their plastic flip-flops under constant threat of theft. All of Wajnberg's non-professional actors belong to this community, though one, Rachel Mwanza, has since escaped after being cast in (and winning the Silver Bear for) Kim Nguyen's War Witch.

After spending some time establishing the direness of their living conditions, Wajnberg has the kids meet real-world street musician Bebson Elemba, a colorful character more interesting for his eccentric dress than his music. (Though the music, heard throughout, is enjoyable.) Wanting to participate in his dubious career somehow, the kids watch as he squanders one opportunity at a big break, then decide to take things in their own hands.

The concert that results is an anticlimax -- a single song that would be uninteresting if not for its origins -- and there's little sense that it might change anything about the lives of these boys and girls. But the slender story might be enough to bring new eyes to an environment rarely seen in U.S. cinemas, a place where the biggest aspiration a kid might voice is "I want to be a policeman so I can steal in peace."


Production Companies: Wajnbrosse Productions, Inti Films, Creschendo Films, MK2

Cast: José Mawanda, Rachel Mwanza, Emmanuel Fakoko, Gabi Bolenge, Gauthier Kiloko, Joël Eziegue, Mickaël Fataki, Samy Molebe, Bebson Elemba, Papa Wemba, Joséphine Nsimba Mpongo, Django Abdul Bampu Sumbu, Jean Shaka Tshipamba, Emmanuel E. M. Ndosi El Bas

Director-Screenwriter: Marc-Henri Wajnberg

Producers: Marc-Henri Wajnberg, Serge Guez, Peter KrĂ¼Ger, DRCongo, Georges Abranches, Riva Kalimazi

Directors of photography:  Danny Elsen, Colin Houben

Music: Bebson “De La Rue” And The Trionyx, The Diable Aza Te

Editor:  Marie-Hélène Dozo

Sales: MK2

No rating, 85 minutes