'Kinshasa Makambo': Film Review

An explosion of ideas and action.

True/False Documentary Festival award winner Dieudo Hamadi ('National Diploma', 'Mama Colonel') exposes the political crisis in the Congo through the stories of three young political activists.

"Makambo" means "headache," and that's an understatement in Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi's ceaselessly direct, hard-hitting chronicle about how the Central African country is falling apart at its politically charged seams. Kinshasa Makambo centers on three young activists and their different ways of trying to bring about democracy in a country that has never witnessed a peaceful transition of power.

Hamadi has subtly investigated the Democratic Republic of Congo's social malaise in two shorts and three features during the past decade. Mirroring the ongoing social unrest resulting from refusal of the country's president, Joseph Kabila, to step down after a decade in power, Kinshasa Makambo offers conflicts aplenty, both in the shape of physical clashes between the oppressive state apparatus and unarmed civilians, and the ideological struggles within the anti-establishment camp.

The film succeeds on both scores. Alongside gripping depictions of political mobilizations and police clampdowns, the 33-year-old filmmaker contemplates the inevitable clashes between idealism and pragmatism for people trying to achieve their goals under severe constraints.

Hamadi's previous documentaries focused on the Congo's elections (Atalaku), education system (National Diploma) and war on sexual abuse (Mama Colonel). Here, in describing his country's specific social circumstances, his observations could arguably be applied to other societies from Egypt to Hong Kong, where oppositional activists struggle to stay united to achieve concessions from their authoritarian rulers.

At once locally pertinent and universally relevant, Kinshasa Makambo should travel widely after its bow at the Berlin Film Festival, especially in view of the backing of international broadcasters like France's ARTE, the Swiss RTS and Al-Jazeera. The film had its U.S. premiere March 2 at the True/False documentary festival in Columbia, Missouri, where Hamadi received the annual True Vision award. The next stop will be Cinéma du Réel in Paris, where Mama Colonel bagged the grand prize last year.

Filmed from late 2015 to early 2017, the film revolves around the often-postponed presidential elections that are to replace Kabila, who has already completed two five-year terms, the maximum allowed by the country's constitution. Kabila, however, has appeared hell-bent on clinging to power, repeatedly postponing the ballot while his party pushed through legislation that would allow him another term.

Heartened by the successful anti-government movements in African countries like Tunisia and Burkina Faso, the masses have strongly opposed Kabila's bid to become president for life. Kinshasa Makambo begins with a violent confrontation between demonstrators and police who are ready to fire live rounds to disperse the crowd. The sequence depicting these street battles, shot by Hamadi himself, is as gripping as material produced by veteran correspondents in war zones.

But it's after the dust and tear gas settle that the film kicks into gear, as Hamadi follows three closely knit activists who have suffered in different ways and take different approaches to changing their future.

Having fled the Congo in 2015 after organizing an anti-Kabila rally, Ben sneaks back into the country, after spending months contending with lowly jobs and ostracism from his own folks in the U.S. Meanwhile, Jean-Marie returns to civilian life after spending a chastening spell in prison for his activities.The film’s third subject, the brash Christian, has largely evaded the police and is leading the daily charge at the barricades.

It's Christian who is the firebrand of the group, advocating an uncompromising stand against Kabila and his henchmen. His open radicalism drives a wedge between him and the other two, especially after the return of elderly dissident Etienne Tshisekedi from his long exile in Belgium in 2016. Old and sick, he is viewed with suspicion by some grassroots activists, Christian among them, while others like Ben call for a temporary alliance with him to oust Kabila. Jean-Marie, meanwhile, goes off on another tangent with his "psychological attacks" in the shape of bizarrely childish written threats he sends to Kabila's cronies.

As this internal struggle grows, the trio's collective dissolves. As with the scuffles with the police and the "educational" campaigns conducted in the hustle and bustle of downtown Kinshasa, these young fighters are drowned out by both the sound of wheezing teargas canisters and the cacophony of the street market.

Hamadi's camerawork is vibrant and thoughtful, and Hélène Ballis' editing is crisp. It's obvious the director feels for his subjects and his country's sorry fate — he got to know his protagonists through Ben, whom he met at a political-cultural event in 2013 — but he has opted to stay in the background and allow his interviewees and his images to tell their (and his) stories. The result is an explosion of ideas and action — a vivid articulation of the throbbing headache threatening to blow the Congo apart.

Production companies: Les Films de l'Oeil Sauvage, Kiripifilms with Alva Film, Barbel Mauch Film, Flimmer Film, Mutotu Productions, Service Compris, ARTE, RTS and Al-Jazeera English
Director-cinematographer: Dieudo Hamadi
Producers: Quentin Laurent, Frédéric Féraud, Dieudo Hamadi
Editing: Hélène Ballis
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Andanafilms
In Lingala
75 minutes