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Interview: Daniel McCabe’s “This Is Congo” compels us to care about the Congo

Director Daniel McCabe reveals his intent to confuse, scar, and ultimately engage the audience in his war documentary “This Is Congo”.

By , 30 Nov 17
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Daniel McCabe (Courtesy of Phil Moore)

This is Congo, which recently enjoyed its New York premiere, is a brutal and harrowing war documentary depicting the decades of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It depicts the conflict through the eyes of four real-life characters: mineral dealer Mama Romance, refugee and tailor Hakiza Nyantaba, beloved frontline commander Colonel Mamadou Ndala, and “Colonel Kasongo” (not his real name — the anonymous whistleblower who guides the viewer through a visually stunning but raw depiction of everyday life in a country that remains in a constant state of war.

Director Daniel McCabe was primarily a photographer who came across the mineral conflict in the Congo and just couldn’t let it go. He felt compelled to explore the universal issues of war that go far beyond the Kivus. This is Congo is the result of a man who became a filmmaker almost by accident, and his indispensable local crew. Together, they’ve crafted a beautiful and relentless essay about the power of the past and the tragedy of the present.

Cinema Escapist sat down with McCabe to discuss the surprising evolution of the documentary, the unpredictable process of making it, his intent to instill a sense of confusion in the audience to simulate Congo’s complex realities, and how war affects us all in very different ways.

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This is Congo is probably one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in awhile. I was blown away! You’ve created something incredible .

Daniel McCabe in the Congo. (Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown)

I’m glad to hear that. I know for some viewers it’s a bit of a heavy dose. It’s good to hear there’s [people] who can handle that kind of a ride!

It doesn’t make for easy viewing, but I doubt that was the point of it.

[Laughs] right, we’re giving people an extreme dose [of what it’s like to be surrounded by conflict].

And it’s the most extreme examples that affect people the most.

Exactly! But having said that, we found that we had to tone things down in terms of graphic violence. Because with the immersive quality of a lot of stuff [in the film], we found that it was too much. But we found a happy balance of the visual storytelling with archive [footage].

So you’re a documentarian for whom the images are just as important as the story and the subjects.

From a cinematographic standpoint, I wanted to disarm and immerse the viewer with this kind of meditation where [they[ can stop thinking about the traditional, “shaky” doc with just talking heads… I wanted to blur the lines of [whether] this is real or not (by combining the traditional documentary style with cinematography that a traditional fiction film would have) because those are the type of films that draw me in as well.

You already had experience filming in the DRC, but what specifically compelled you to tell this story? Was it something you saw? Did someone ask you to tell it? Is it something you had wanted to make for years?

It kind of naturally grew from a much shittier idea of a film that I set out to make.

When I first started to make this I was, naively and in a very Western way, looking at how I could connect the minerals with the conflict. About a year into filming, we were primarily exploring mining areas and armed groups, when I began to learn with my field producer and mentor, Horeb Bulambo Shindano, about the conflict and challenge these preconceptions I had that “this conflict is just about minerals”. It’s much, much deeper than that.

This led me to realise that we need to understand [the country’s] history to contextualise [what’s happening] today. These problems [in the Congo] are universal. I didn’t want to get too specific [and just focus on Congo] so we lent on [narrative] devices like confusion and trust, because these are representative of the Congo today.

I started off trying to making this documentary about conflict minerals but what ended up happening was these characters in the Congo [appeared and effectively told me] “no, this is the film!”. Of course, at the time the M23 war started boiling up, and each of these thing started to emerge. I was able to recognize my failures, and be calm enough to let things grow naturally and they definitely took off.

Sounds like this was a project that constantly evolved as you were making it. Describe an average day of production.

We were filming for about three-and-a-half years, so honestly an average day probably consisted of waking up, wishing something would work out, sitting around all day on my ass and getting frustrated. But once we got into the swing of our characters, an average day would start at dawn in a refugee camp, just hanging out with characters like Hakiza and other people who didn’t make it into the film.

We’d just spend as much time with them as possible and keep our ear to the ground for things happening on the front lines. When there was action that I could get access to, we’d hightail it there, and then the Mama Romance thread [came about]. That consisted of five or six trips to her area. Over the course of all these trips, what needs to happen to get the kind of access you need is to make people familiar with you, and you [have to] get familiar with these environments and make everybody comfortable, so that when the time comes, you’re ready and everyone is prepared to deal with you.

How did you find Mama Romance, another of your lead characters?

All the characters found us, in a strange way. [We found Mama Romance] in one of these mining towns we had dropped in on, thinking “this is interesting”, an end-of-the-road town, and whilst we were [searching for subjects], like a child miner or some nefarious overlord, it was her voice.

I’m hearing her [in the background] as [I try to interview other potential subjects], and at first I thought “we have to stop her talking, her voice is cutting over everything”, but then we go and start talking to her. I’m thinking “my god! she’s incredible”, she just has this warmth. I’m just this white guy and like nothing [the townspeople] have ever seen before, and she was interested in talking, and she just disarmed me.

A shot from This Is Congo. (Courtesy of Vision Film Co.)

Did Colonel Kasongo (not his real name) approach you well into production? Or at the start, which in turn then drove the rest of the story?

We had been working with several other armed groups and with characters who never made it into the film, casting as wide a net as possible to potential characters to feature in the documentary. I was in contact with Kasongo because he had connections to smugglers, and we envisioned focusing on him as a smuggler but that never really developed because I couldn’t show his face [and] I couldn’t go smuggling with him.

But once the other characters started emerging, I realized we needed to contextualize the past with the present. These other characters were incredible at showing us who they were, but not at dictating history and how we as viewers should interpret [events].

Kasongo was the opposite, he was so intelligent and later on emerged almost as this narrative thread to connect characters and history and [explain] what was happening. He also gave us the ability to play with the viewers’ trust, [make them think] “is he real?”, “is he a liar?”. It just felt right, adding to the confusion which myself and the editor, Alyse Ardell Spiegel, played into during post-production.

You mentioned that there were other armed groups that didn’t make the final cut. did any of these sides know that you were documenting the others?

Yeah. Things are pretty “laissez-faire” in Congo– just in the Kivus alone I’d say you have about a hundred armed groups, so it’s not like they’re checking your passports and stamps and accusing you of being a spy– although that does happen [sometimes]. It becomes more of a negotiation.

Sometimes these armed groups are working together, so we didn’t have much of an issue with any of them. The problems came once we were wholeheartedly with Mamadou. Sitting down with an army group is one thing, but once you’re so intensely involved with Mamadou, we couldn’t go back to the other sides. Even if I could have done that, it would have been unsafe for my local crew. At a certain point, we had to just commit [to documenting Mamadou].

How do you build up a relationship with the rebel forces and the army? How did you establish trust there?

I guess we didn’t. It all grew organically. Working with these armed groups, [you realize that] they have an agenda and have something to say. They’re not that hard to get in contact with. But talking to the army? That’s [almost] impossible. They’re ordered not to speak to journalists. They’re by far the most criminal organization in the country! Gaining access to them was extremely difficult, [whereas] Rebels want the camera time.

The funny thing is that we were working with a group called the FDLR in northern North Kivu. We were leaving our interview with them when our truck had mechanical issues and our departure was delayed. We were heading to a place you want to get to during daylight, but we had no alternative but to drive there in the middle of the night- we’re stuck in the middle of a bad place, the front line between a former Hutu Genocidaire group from Rwanda and the government soldiers.

It was actually Mamadou’s unit that arrested us [at a point during our journey through the front line]. We get brought to these holding cells and Horeb and I are sitting there, waiting for the commanding officer to hand down our fate, when it turns out he and my Horeb are old childhood friends who went to boarding school together. So all our problems went away, and we end up just hanging out in the old ruins of a hotel with this government unit. We weren’t even filming, just hanging out with them. These guys had something to say, and Mamadou — who you see in the film is very charismatic — just wants to be seen.

What I like about the film is there’s no obvious protagonist, but I’m wondering what your reading of Mamadou is. Was there genuine conviction in his actions, or was he just a very convincing careerist?

He was only thirty years old when he died. He was just a kid, he was naive. I believe he began as a poacher and he’d been in rebel groups [previously], so he’s far from this shining beacon of what Congo needed. But he was this perfect embodiment of a lot of good things. He had this childish naivety that he brought to what he did. It served him well and he wanted to please people, but he was hardcore in a lot of other ways!

From This Is Congo (Courtesy of Michael McCabe)

I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot, because this is one of those rare films with a genuine sense of danger – how did you prepare yourself for the possibility that the worst could happen to you when documenting on the front lines?

I had been with Mamadou’s units for months at the point [when I was filming combat on the front lines] and had been searching for a front line and for combat, for years. So there wasn’t any hesitation when the opportunity presented itself [to go and document it].

[When I was told] “Shit’s going off, are you gonna get in the truck or stay where you are?”, I would always just get in the truck. For me, it was always about what was the best thing to include in the film, those moments that nobody else gets.

So I think that perhaps my selfishness made me jump into [combat zones] so quickly. [When you get there] you’re cut off, so once you’re in, you’re in this frightening rollercoaster ride where you’re trying to make good decisions, [trying] not to get shot or killed!

It’s obvious you’re more of a natural storyteller and a visual artist than a war documentarian. Did you find your previous experience as a photographer, and the discipline of that medium, informed the discipline of being a filmmaker whilst making this documentary?

Sure, definitely. This is my first film, the initial concept [for this documentary] actually began after I covered a conflict in Congo in 2008, as a photographer. Once I got home (to New York), I was maxing out my credit cards, trying to stay afloat and sell these photos, so I wasn’t necessarily a [financially] successful photojournalist. But that led me to think of alternative ways to tell the story- I feel I am a storyteller, and I’m in it for the personal experience as well.

You don’t get much out of quick stops to the area to cover a news story, so I wanted to follow these longer pursuits [for a story], so I think this naturally led me to filmmaking, which I’d never really considered. I just thought it could be a way to continue making money and staying in the area. Those tools [from being a photographer] certainly helped as well.

So visuals were always going to be a priority for you as you made the film?

The equipment we used out in the field was custom-made, which was intentional so we could make the documentary as cinematic an experience as possible.

First and foremost, you were there to just tell a story, but do you hope that the reception of the film is going to achieve anything?

In the wilderness. (Courtesy of Peter Muller)

It’s tricky, this isn’t the kind of film where you walk away with any understanding of what to do or how to help. We almost do the opposite, we assault you with this confusion so that you’re left gutted. My hope is that there’s this resonance that [audiences realize] this is what we [as humans] do, this is what we’re capable of, which is larger than just what is happened in the Congo- it’s about something much bigger, something universal.

What I want people to walk away with is a sense that they are better equipped to understand what is happening in the Congo. My hope is that if you go and watch this film, and you make use of the confusion that’s inherent to the film and conduct your own research [to overcome that confusion].

You have a few footholds of understanding [in the film] that the conflict is deeper than just minerals and a few armed groups. It’s so much more than that. But having that knowledge, when Congo gets to actually appear in the news, you [the viewer] will be able to understand it better.

This is the major problem with these areas of the world — it’s hard to get people to engage and identify what’s going on in a meaningful way.

If we don’t give a shit, we just turn the page, which is just how the world is working, especially in the age of Trump, where every morning begins with a tweet that completely sidetracks everyone, including the media. Now more than ever, people need to try and identify with these stories and do the research themselves.

•  •  •

This Is Congo is currently screening at festivals worldwide. Find out more about the film at https://www.thisiscongo.com


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