'Kongo': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Pyramide International
A real-life witch trial.

Hadrien La Vapeur and Corto Vaclav follow the exploits of a Congolese witch doctor in their debut documentary, which closed out the ACID sidebar in Cannes.

From Jim Jarmusch’s opening night satire The Dead Don't Die to pure auteur-driven works like Zombi Child and Atlantics, zombies, sorcery and the supernatural have been all the rage at Cannes this year. So it’s perhaps fitting that the festival’s most offbeat sidebar, the ACID section, closed out with a movie about “real” witchcraft in the form of Hadrien La Vapeur and Corto Vaclav’s short but compelling Africa-set documentary, Kongo.

Shot in and around the Republic of the Congo capital of Brazzaville, the film follows the travails of the Apostle Medard, a member of the Ngunza church who claims to have healing powers that can protect people from evil spirits. Every morning, alleged victims of sorcery line up to have the witch doctor perform rites of exorcism — such as sucking and spitting out blood from wounds, or capturing their bad juju in a glass bottle — that will cast off any bad spells and keep his followers of sound body and mind.  

La Vapeur, who operated the camera, and Vaclav, who handled the sound, were given rare access to Medard’s practice, which could seem like total baloney to some viewers but which comes across as meaningful, and even beneficial, to those in need of his services. Like Jean Rouch’s classic 1955 short, Les Maitres fous, which chronicled a religious sect in Ghana whose members drove themselves into convulsive trances, the directors depict a world where such obscure rituals take on a vast local importance.

Thus, when two children are killed at home by what was allegedly a mysterious bolt of lighting, Medard is put on trial for being behind the sorcery. This is not a witch trial, so to speak, but a legitimate hearing in a Congolese court of law. What’s fascinating is that, as crazy as this may sound, the trial is taken absolutely seriously by the judges and Medard himself, who fears that a conviction could ruin his livelihood — “I will have to go back to plumbing,” he admits — as well as the reputation of his church.

La Vapeur’s camera tracks Medard both at home in Brazzaville and on a few trips he makes to visit his spiritual father out in the countryside, creating a number of arresting images — an underlit city hammered by rain, a frenzied burial ritual at night, a tropical forest devastated by mining — that reveal the poverty and ruin of the land. There is no voiceover to explain what’s happening, nor are things entirely clear at points, yet the filmmakers manage to convey the sense of a place in crisis.

Indeed, if Kongo starts off as a portrait of Medard’s esoteric and rather questionable religious exploits, it soon shifts to one of a country that’s itself in the process of being exploited by outside forces. “The Chinese are destroying our kingdom,” the apostle comments at one point as we watch bulldozers digging up huge boulders from the earth, which are then pulverized into smaller rocks by a group of African workers.

Although the film never provides details on China’s current business practices in the Republic, it’s clear that for some locals they are far from beneficial. This is certainly the case for Medard, who would often travel to a remote waterfall in order to commune with mermaids (yes, this is what he believes), until he arrives one day to find the place completely obliterated by a foreign mining company. It’s this forlorn journey that closes out Kongo, leaving us with a bitter vision on how exploitation of the land is not only killing off Africa’s natural resources, but also part of its spirit.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (ACID)
Production companies: Kidam, Expedition Invisible
Directors: Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav
Producers: Francois-Pierre Clavel, Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav, Alexandre Perrier
Director of photography: Hadrien La Vapeur
Editor: Annette Durtertre        
Composer: Gaspar Claus
Sales: Pyramide International

In Lari, French
70 minutes