'System K' ('Systeme K'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Real street art, raw and unfiltered.

Director Renaud Barret ('Benda Bilili!') explores the vibrant street art scene of Kinshasa in a documentary that premiered in Berlin’s Panorama section.

If you think you know street art because you’ve seen a few works by Banksy or Shepard Fairey, then you should take a look at the immersive documentary System K (Systeme K), which follows several Kinshasa artists who bring the medium to a whole new level.

Directed and shot by the French-born Renaud Barret, whose music doc Benda Bilili! played Cannes in 2010, this eye-opening and often eye-popping exposé tracks an emerging wave of Congolese creators whose vibrant, sometimes disturbing works are far more provocative than the kind of street art that now fetches millions at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Loosely assembled but compelling in its subject matter, System K could attract distributors looking for an African spin on Exit Through the Gift Shop, Waste Land and the recent The Man Who Stole Banksy.

Plagued by civil wars, coups d’état and corrupt governments for the past half-century, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of Africa’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, but one of its poorest in terms of living standards. Located at its very heart is Kinshasa, a pulsing capital city of 11 million inhabitants that seems to exist in a state of relative chaos, with a crumbling infrastructure (especially the electrical grid and water system) and a high rate of crime.

Kinshasa is also home to a burgeoning scene where a dozen or so daring creators bring their work and their bodies (the two are often combined) directly into the streets, using art to depict the dire situation of their city and country. With names like Kongo Astronaute, Strombo, Majestic, Kill Bill, Flory and Junior, these individual or collective artists employ materials culled from garbage bins and trash heaps, as well as fire, paint, wax and blood, to make monumental installations and kinetic performance pieces.

In the case of Kongo Astronaute, the artist transforms used electronic parts and appliances into makeshift spacesuits he wears around town like a voyager visiting from another planet. The sculptor Freddy Tsimba builds life-size sculptures out of bullet shells and machetes, contextualizing the violence that his plagued his people. The self-taught Beni Baras melts down plastic and rubber into outlandish assemblies, while the performer Strombo prances around at night pretending to be the Devil.

What’s fascinating about the cast of System K is how resourceful they’ve become in a place where art supplies are not readily available, and where there seem to be no major galleries or museums supporting their work. Many of them utilize discarded computers, chipboards and televisions sets, with one artist remarking how developed nations “take our raw materials and gives us back the used goods.” In a more direct form of protest, the aformentioned Kill Bill gathers such material in the street, then proceeds to smash it all with a sledgehammer like some sort of Congolese Gallagher.

The rawness, irony and downright hostility of the Kinshasa artists' creations is what makes them stand out, with one extreme performance artist covering himself in hot candlewax, and another parading around town in a bathtub soaked with bags of sacrificial goat blood. Their work reflects the chaos they were born into and continue to live in, and the only recognition they seem to receive is from their fellow struggling artists, or else from passersby gazing at them in amusement or disbelief.

Barret has been granted intimate access to these people and to their working methods, jumping from one artist to the other without much of a clear structure. The result is a film that sometimes feels as frenzied as the world it’s depicting, but one that benefits from being such a full-blown nosedive into a unique moment of collective creation.

Tech credits are solid, especially Barret’s vibrant lensing and a lively score that includes music from yet another member of the Kinshasa scene: the group known as Kokoko!, whose instruments are made of used paint cans, scraps of wood, transistor radios, wire and other detritus that’s been refurbished to produce beautiful sounds.

Production companies: Les Films En Vrac, La Belle Kinoise
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer: Renaud Barret
Producers: Thierry Commissionat, Guillaume Vincent, Benoit Tschieret, Renaut Barret
Editor: Jules Lahana

In French
94 minutes