National Diploma (Examen d'État): Cinéma du Réel Review

Cinema du Reel
Effective cinema vérité, which provokes debate, stirs the heart and wreaks large the universal tenets of a local subject.

Congolese filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi explores the anxiety of his home country's high-school students as they contend with their baccalaureate.

With a concise narrative, precise camera work and sequential oozing moments of candid (and sometimes inadvertent) humor and heartrending emotions, Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi's second feature-length film offers a poised and engaging view of his hometown's high-school students confronting their graduate exams. A remarkable piece of cinema véritéwhich goes mightily up close to its subjects, National Diploma is proof of Hamadi as one of Democratic Republic of Congo's (if not Africa's) most observant documentary-makers; rarely impeding on the circumstances but readily there to capture defining moments in the proceedings. His latest film - like his previous outing, last year's election chronicle Atalaku - is a flowing mix of erudite socio-political reflections and outright fun.

Having just won two prizes after its world premiere at Cinéma du Réel - the documentary showcase's de facto runners-up SCAM International Award and the Potemkine Publishers' Award - National Diploma should be able to secure further festival bookings, just as how Atalaku followed its bow at Cinéma du Réel with screening as far afield as Montreal and San Diego (at the city's Black Film Festival). But National Diploma deserves to break out from merely its race/nationality confinements; it's as much a piece about the ideals and discontents of modern-day youth as it is just another piece about life in Africa.

Having passed through the dog-eat-dog system himself has certainly helped Hamadi in presenting the multiple tribulations of his juniors well. Set in the director's home city of Kisangani - he would eventually move on to study bio-medicine for four years before he left for film studies in Belgium - National Diploma takes its name after the fin-du-lycée examinations which would make or break a high-school student's future; and just as some of their counterparts in other countries, the Congolese students at the center of the film takes to everything and anything to try and pass the examen d'état, ranging from intervention of the divine (bathing in shamanic holy water, having pens blessed by a Christian priest) or the dough (getting "tips" about the question papers from self-proclaimed insiders).

But it's diligence which drives Hamadi's subjects: their determination in carving a better life for themselves burns brightly throughout the film, given how the odds were stacked against them at the start when most of the featured students are kicked out of class (at the grandiose-sounding but dilapidated Athenée Royal) for not being able to pay teachers the "bonuses" as demanded by the school. Rather than just directly bolting for cash-raking opportunities, these teenagers converge and decide to establish a temporary dormitory where they could live and study together before the examinations - which they did, when they convert a plain, unadorned brick-and-mortar house and crowned it "Californie", a sign of hope for better climes.

And just like Atalaku sees the Congolese presidential elections in 2011 through the eye of a social mobilizer of one of the candidates, National Diploma has its pivotal character in the form of Joël, a boy living with his aunt and hoping to leave his market porter part-time job behind with good academic results. His efforts are admirable, his hope conveyed engagingly and his disappointment delivered all the more crushing to the viewer.

Hamadi's mostly handheld cinematography and Rodolphe Molla's editing has successfully evoked the youngsters' vibrant lust for life. Amidst all this, the director also weaves in moments of hilarity which is as comical as it's revealing about the social schisms permeating his home country: the headmaster seen dismissing the students from school is seen later visiting the students at their house and playing the nice papa - a sheen easily debunked when students criticized his coldness and also the ineffective and incomplete teaching at school. (He said he has always encouraged students to drop by and air grievances about some of the "mercenary" teachers in their midst - a generosity rarely seen in the film's opening sequences.)

These hilarious confrontations with power - one other example being the students' exchanges with older students offering to "share" (at a cost, of course) their experiences at getting good marks at the test - is mirrored by the corrupt and absurd manifestations of power itself too, ranging from the endemic indifference among teaching staff at school to the ceremonial pomp accorded to the actual examination itself.

The moment of the (white) government official arriving at the test venue with an entourage and then struggling to open a sealed box of documents with a saw are priceless images of an old system at work in circumstances demanding more socially inclusive options. National Diploma is a testament to this and an effective and entertaining way of outlining where the future lies for crumbling educational systems.

Venue: Cinéma du Réel festival, Paris

Production companies: Agat Films & Cie, with Studios Kabako, Karoninka, Vosges Television, Video de Poche

Director: Dieudo Hamadi

Producer: Marie Balducchi

Cinematographer: Dieudo Hamadi

Editor: Rodolphe Molla

International Sales: Agat Films

In Lingala and French

90 minutes