'Mama Colonel' ('Maman Colonelle'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Maman Colonelle - Mama Colonel still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cin├ędoc films; Dieudo Hamadi
Disciplined, succinct and effective.

Documentarian Dieudo Hamadi follows the work of a senior Congolese policewoman in charge of stopping sexual violence and physical abuse against women and children in the African country.

Having already covered his home country's hospitals, elections and schools, Dieudo Hamadi continues his one-man quest to chronicle the social realities of the Democratic Republic of Congo with Mama Colonel. A portrait of a policewoman struggling against the odds to stop sexual abuse in her new posting in a big city, Hamadi's third feature is engaging, observant and — at just 72 minutes — very succinct.

While not as layered as the director's previous outings — 2013's Atalaku and 2014's National Diploma, which explored the commotion surrounding Congo's presidential polls and nationwide examinations, respectively — this Congolese-French co-production is effective and topical enough to secure Hamadi another international run after its bow in the Forum at Berlin. Further cementing his standing among Africa's most promising nonfiction filmmakers, he was one of four directors invited to speak during the festival at the World Cinema Fund's Doc Day panel.

Hamadi first investigated the horrific patterns of sexual violence in Congo with his early short film, Zero Tolerance. With Mama Colonel, the director — who actually studied bio-medicine before switching to filmmaking — has shifted the focus primarily to those trying to rid the country of such atrocities.

The mama at the center of this film is Honorine Munyole, head of a police unit dedicated to the protection of minors in Bukavu, a Congolese city sitting on the country's eastern borders with Rwanda. The documentary begins with Munyole preparing to leave for a new posting in the much bigger city of Kisangani. What appears to be a promotion turns out to be a more daunting challenge for her — a change which also reveals the dire social circumstances in which the country remains mired, years after its latest deadly civil war.

In both Atalaku and National Diploma, Hamadi proved himself a canny social commentator even without imposing himself or his views on his subject. His strength lies in letting people's actions speak for themselves — and the plentiful absurdities here do speak volumes about the uphill struggle of Munyole's job.

The problems are evident right from the get-go, as she battles fumbling men supposedly paid to help her move her belongings to her new city. Their ineptness — they can't handle things properly, and can barely spell her name right when marking the goods — is mirrored almost from the start in her new workplace. All assumptions about her getting better underlings in Kisangani, Congo's third largest municipality, go out the window as her new team assembles before her. Nearly half the officers don't bother to show, while those that do look like a devil-may-care motley crew.

And so the absurdities go on. But Munyole never appears fazed by the useless men milling around, or by the horrible adults she has to confront to save yet another crying and bruised child. Again, Hamadi manages to allude to the dire circumstances in his country by capturing the dismaying attitudes on show: people warning Munyole about "fake victims," and an incredibly common belief that children deserve violence and confinement because they are practicing "witchcraft."

Hailing from Kisangani himself, Hamadi is no doubt emotionally vested in all that goes wrong for Munyole. Still, he manages to be at once very close to the action, but also distant enough to provide a delicate yet balanced view of what is going on. Just like in his previous films, the director is not out looking for heroes and villains. The good deeds and galling crimes only highlight how broken the Congo's social structure remains, with the specter of past wars still lingering in the air.

While Munyole is obviously a tireless protagonist here, Hamadi's own view seems implicit when someone asks the subject why she toils so much and raises her own funds when that should be the government's task. As a postponed presidential election racks up tension in Congo, Mama Colonel offers yet another piece in Hamadi's ongoing portrait of a country in crisis.

Production Company: Cinedoc Films, Mutotu Productions, Tele Paese, Lyon Capitale TV
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Dieudo Hamadi
Producers: Christian Lelong, Kiripi Katembo Siku
Editor: Anne Renardet
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
International Sales: Andana Films
In Lingala and French

72 minutes