Plot: “This is Congo” views the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo through four personalities: the whistleblower “Colonel Kasongo”, idealistic anti-rebel national hero Colonel Mamadou Ndala, talented tailor turned weary refugee Hakiza Nyantaba, and charismatic black market mineral dealer Mama Romance.
As our narrative guide “Colonel Kasongo” (an alias) reminds us in the dizzying and harrowing documentary This is Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s decades of conflict were kindled in large part by the interference of brutal European colonizers, and later Americans through the arrest of Patrice Lumumba. However, foreign interference is only one part of the story when it comes to deep-seated tensions in Continental Africa. As seen through Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s recent fall from power, it is equally the fault of corrupt African leaders that parts of the continent remain in a form of stasis, hindered by brutal conflict that proves an obstacle in the relentless march of progress.
In This Is Congo, director Daniel McCabe focuses equally on the childish squabbles of those in power and the fragmented efforts of rebel forces to capitalize on such chaos. McCabe’s film shows how many rebels are disgruntled former employees of the same regime they claim to be fighting, who switch allegiances according to which side offers more benefits. In the process, we also see a glimpse of those caught in the middle.
Whilst the film has the benefit of some beautiful visuals that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terence Malick film or Werner Herzog documentary, it flits between footage from the frontlines of war that will get your pulse racing and more quiet, humorous observations of individuals trying to get by amidst the conflict.
The backdrop to these character studies makes us empathize with their subjects even further. The very fact that life can continue in the face of this convoluted scramble for power, influence, and resources feels staggering. McCabe does an excellent job of capturing beauty — both human and natural — that somehow endures as conflict rages over what seems like nothing.
McCabe himself admits that he finds the conflict and its causes to be confusing, and he makes sure the viewer feels exactly the same. Very few benefit from the petty squabbles of those in the highest echelons of the government and military. At times, This is Congo feels like Dr. Strangelove, in which the masses will suffer at the hands of a select few who just can’t act like adults. More recently, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is another example of the farce to be found in the struggle for power.
“You have to laugh, or you’d cry” appears to be the message the director and his various subjects convey. The situation in the Congo is so bleak and harrowing — McCabe doesn’t let up on footage of gore and dead bodies — that the documentary becomes far more about people’s coping mechanisms and methods of survival amidst it all. In war, it is said, there are no true winners. But there is at least some reason for it starting, and a side that ends it with the most to gain. The conflict in the Congo seems to have neither.
If anything, This is Congo seems to suggest that the country’s constant state of war actually benefits the likes of current President Joseph Kabila, so they don’t have to face up to the responsibility of running a nation and governing its people. When nothing makes sense, sometimes the only relief is to embrace gallows humor — it may be the only form of escape for the people of the Congo, this documentary’s director, and for the shellshocked audience.
McCabe manages to examine war in a way no narrative feature ever could, metaphorically and philosophically. War is pointless, as is the pursuit of power. In the end, not even the victors win because there is no solid foundation beyond “I have the power”. This is why no one who wields power, from Stalin and Mugabe to Hitler and Trump, can hold onto it forever.
This Is Congo — United States/Democratic Republic of Congo. Dialog in French and English, with English subtitles. Directed by Daniel McCabe. Running time 1hr 33min. First released September 2017.
This Is Congo is currently screening at festivals worldwide. Find out more about the film at https://www.thisiscongo.com/