“Negro nature had often asserted itself, but it was after all but human nature. They had never boasted that they were heroes, but they exhibited truly heroic stuff while coping with the varied terrors of the hitherto untrodden and apparently endless wilds of broad Africa.”
– Through the Dark Continent Vol. 2 (1877), Henry Morton Stanley
On January 16th, 2014, Congolese filmmaker and director Carolle Maloba wa Maloba, uploaded her documentary film Makala to YouTube. The film dealt with the work of charcoal laborers and the environmental impact that charcoal production was having on Lubumbashi, a city in DRC’s Katanga province. Three years later, Sebastian Gras’ film of the same title, subject matter, and at times, even similar scenes shot, was released in 2017 by French distributor Les Films du Losange. Gras’ film went on to win the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival of that same year. On Maloba wa Maloba’s youtube page one commenter, Didou Dieudo, wrote:
“On dirait que votre film a inspiré un autre film en 2017 ou bien l’idée a carrément été volée. Puisque si la nouvelle version a été réalisée avec le même titre en plus, sans citer votre nom à la base, c’est presque un plagia ou un remake de votre film.”
“They say that your film inspired another film in 2017 or that the idea was stolen outright. Because if the new version was made with the same title, without mentioning your name, it’s almost plagiarism or a remake of your movie.”
It may very well be that Gras’ decision to make a film about charcoal workers came about independently of Maloba wa Maloba’s film. We must give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Such coincidences or parallelisms in thought and idea can, and do happen, and without more information, we can assume very little. However, what can be critically evaluated is the power structure that makes a French male filmmaker the central arbiter of the representation of Congo’s charcoal workers, through geopolitical, race, class and gender privileges. That is, through the power of what feminist thinker bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
Due to French governmental and financial support, as well as the availability of a larger pool of labor and technological resources, Sebastian Gras’ film may be regarded as ‘refined’ or high art, whereas Maloba wa Maloba’s documentary may be seen as ‘raw material’. If it is indeed the case that Sebastian Gras’ stole Maloba’s wa Maloba’s idea, then even the theft of intellectual property or of an artistic idea remains banal – most of us are in it across race, gender and class lines, whether in academia, the arts, on social media, or in the entertainment world. So, while this piece speculates on the possible appropriation, it more so seeks to analyze the representations that these two documentaries offer of DR-Congo. As feminist cultural critic bell hooks would ask, what functions do these representations serve, and in whose interest? This article critiques the ways of ‘looking’ at Congo which are rooted in coloniality and which continue to subjugate the voices of Congolese people who value themselves rightly and speak from that position. Yet if we, in the banality of our lives are implicated in this, and may also be guilty of stealing ideas for capitalist reward, what then should be the vision of transformation?
First, a transformative act of critique should not stop at the scene of the spectacle. Particularly in the case of Congo, where both historical and historiographical acts of ‘exposing’ imperialist wrong-doing abound (for example in the works of E.D. Morel, George Washington Williams and Adam Hochschild), gestures of ‘exposure’ should decenter, rather than fix our gaze on, the master narrative of European domination. Second, a transformative act of critique or ‘exposure’ should try to disrupt a pattern. Congo as a dark and fascinatingly hostile geography where the nature of human suffering can be explored is part of a system of archetypes to which we are attuned and addicted, responding easily to its signals and signifiers. Changing these representations requires not only creating decolonial images in film or literature, it also requires changing our desire for and attachment to, the old ones. This means acknowledging the truth about ourselves.
The Colonial Gaze
The incredible receptivity of a Western public to a dramatic narrative fiction depicting the lone struggle of a Congolese laborer, which evokes romantic notions of human survival in an unforgiving African landscape, is noteworthy. It instigates a sense of fascination and horror that colonial gazing cultivates by imagining scenes of ‘bare’ and precarious life within a harsh African landscape. The survivalist narrative resonates because it continues in the imagery of 19th century colonial discovery which emphasized the danger and heroism of Africa’s geography (for example in the writings of Congo explorer Henry Morton Stanley, as quoted above). It registers as high art and philosophy because of the legacy of 18th and 19th century Romanticism – an intellectual movement preoccupied with the figure of the hero and his passions, with the transcendental, sublime and the exotic, and with the exaltation of nature’s grandeur. This is still embedded in our collective consciousness, aesthetics and mores, shaping our culture of taste. This film stands out because it presents a ‘rare’ look into a seemingly unique African experience, as with no other point (or counterpoint) of comparison to Katanga, viewers are sure to draw on these tropes as a basis for Congo’s intelligibility. Indeed, it is not likely that a documentary film about Congo which does not employ these tropes will sell well. Neither would it garner views nor be rewarded by a white supremacist capitalist film industry.
Like Henry Morton Stanley’s travelogue Through the Dark Continent Vol. 2 (1878) or Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899), Gras’ film stages a descent into the realms of African extremis. In traditional colonial imagination, this is the point where the human soul (either as the barbaric native or as the civilized European) may experience uplift and dignity or degradation and dehumanization. With several panning shots of Katanga’s awe-inspiring geography – the vast green forest, the desolate charred earth, and the dry and dusty roads – we follow the protagonist Kabwita Kasongo through remote locations and dangerous routes, along with Gras, who becomes “the wandering European, [entering] at his own peril” – to borrow Chinua Achebe’s words from “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” (1988).
True to the spirit of peril and precarity, most scenes in Gras’ film are shot in the darkness. And just as in Romantic art, Gras uses chiaroscuro (contrasts of light and dark) to generate eeriness, ominous tension and transience. In tandem with this is the mournful, disharmonic drone and dirge-like cello music of Gaspar Claus, introduced at key points to evoke pathos. The music has a chilling effect and is reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s scores in the movie The Dark Night (2008), and per Gras, also takes its cue from Béla Tarr’s existential film The Turin Horse (2011). We see the protagonist Kabwita Kasongo pushing his bicycle at night, sitting beside a fire at night with only his white pupils visible, sitting with his face in his hands on the road at dusk, looking weary. We see his family members seated in the darkness of their brick house with its corrugated iron roof. His wife, Lydie Kasongo is shown twice cooking a rat, and save for a piece of fruit Kasongo eats on the road, we see nothing else of what they eat. The message is clear: they are the wretched of the earth. Gras’ film depicts the epic heroism of the suffering Kabwita, or to use Stanley’s words, the negro man who exhibits truly heroic stuff. But heroism requires a certain kind of asymmetry and dehumanization. Kabwita must be ‘small’ in our eyes in order for his perseverance against insurmountable odds to be ‘big.’ And to be a hero, Kabwita must not be seen as having any serious shortcomings in character. He must be simple and sincere enough to represent the universal primitive soul. Kabwita is a kind of “rudimentary soul,” to use Joseph Conrad’s words, operating with his rudimentary tools. Or to use Gras words in another interview, Kwabita represents “a lonely man’s condition, in a spiritual, material and economical context, reduced to the essentials.” But far from being a humanist reflection on the will to live, it is the desire to have the audience experience thrilling intimacy with a contemporary African primitive that is on stage.
Reviews of the film reveal how watchers responded. MoMA’s website referred to the “treacherous dirt roads” that the young Kabwita passed on his “perilous trade.” It described Gras’ documentary as a “neorealist parable, locating an epic dimension in the humblest of experiences.” Another reviewer on IMDB found the movie “mesmerizing” in how it showed how “even in the midst of abject poverty…this film is concerned with some of the poorest people on the planet, there’s nonetheless at many times an extraordinary beauty.” In their view, the movie was conveying the message of “the human spirit, our search for meaning and significance in an indifferent universe, an apparently meaningless and purposeless world.” Indeed, under the spell of a filmic representation deploying a minimalist aesthetic, offering ‘no comment’ save for the long-durational, close-up shots and amplified sounds of a bicycle being pushed, of a man looking miserable, and of the wind blowing in the forest, viewers are easily held emotionally hostage. Gras in his interview with Films du Solange described his desire to generate emotion and sensuality, to “make reality as expressive as possible” and to “search for sensations.” In an interview with Film Society of Lincoln Center, Gras lets us know that through empathetic feeling, audiences will be able to understand what it really means to work very hard for very little gain, to destroy much only to sell one’s produce for a pittance. And yet, as the reviews of the film show, viewers do not necessarily arrive at an understanding of global capitalism through feeling. We are not reminded that cheap goods rely on cheapened labor and environmental destruction. We do not think about our own consumption. We do not become critical thinkers through pity.
Maloba wa Maloba’s Documentary
Carolle Maloba wa Maloba’s film on the other hand, can only be described at the exact opposite of Gras’ film. Or perhaps Grass film is deliberately opposed to Maloba wa Maloba’s. Where Kabwita is mostly mute in Gras’ film, in Maloba wa Maloba’s film, charcoal workers, market women, farmers and government officials are speaking vocally. In Gras’ film Kabwita is “the great silent man”, but in Maloba wa Maloba’s film, we see a community in public deliberation. Katangans express their experiences, thoughts, reflect on their own lives, offer critiques of the government, and make arguments in favor of, and against the trade. Where Gras’ film is an apparently depoliticized existential reflection on the human spirit, Maloba wa Maloba’s film is explicitly pro-environmentalist, critiquing the problem of deforestation in Katanga province and putting workers on the front stage. Where Gras argues in the interview with Films du Solange that “African-inspired music would have created a redundant feeling in relation to the rhythm of [Kwabita’s] walking” (thus choosing cello music instead), eco-revolutionary Congolese hip-hop plays constantly in the background of Maloba wa Maloba’s film, urging listeners to “be in harmony with nature, for the sake of the future of the world and future generations.” This music combining rap with xylophonic melodies codes the Katangan geography differently, akin to the way ‘village movies’ are filmed in the Nolly-/Ghollywood industry, where such overtones set the stage for the anticipation of curious village happenings and the storytelling of wry and cunning elders. Where Gras’ film emphasizes the singularity of Kabwita’s labor, Maloba wa Maloba’s film shows us that from start to finish, charcoal production is a cooperative and collaborative process between senior and junior male laborers, and between men, their families and friends. This aspect is elided in Gras’ film, with only a few scenes suggesting otherwise, such as 1) the opening scene where Kwabita motions to someone off screen as the tree he is cutting falls; 2) when a row of similar charcoal workers pushing their bikes enter the frame ahead of Kabwita; and 3) when suddenly a group of young men and teenage boys gather to help him lift his bicycle after it has been knocked over by a car on the road. In Maloba wa Maloba’s film, from beginning to end, we see young men carrying sacs of charcoal, standing by their rows of bicycles, working in groups, and going together to the forest, sharing the coal from the tree that is cut down. Dialogue is not emphasized in Gras’ film even when Kabwita is talking to his family, neither is daily village life nor interaction with neighbors emphasized. Gras stated in his interview with No Film School, that this aspect of Kabwita’s life was “not really the core of the film.”
Like Gras, Maloba wa Maloba documents the whole process of charcoal production – from the tree-felling to the sale. With Maloba wa Maloba’s lens however, we are not seduced into an individualist and disenabling identification with an African worker, struggling to survive the brutal circumstances of his life. In Maloba’s film, we are invited to identify with a community. We hear, for example, from Jeampiere Ngwej, the environmental coordinator for Lubumbashi (only a few kilometers away from Kolwezi) speaking on how deforestation has forced charcoal workers to seek forests further and further away, about 25km outside the city. We also hear one charcoal worker, Kabulo François, describing how the journey could take up to two days:
“Ni mbali…hapa mimi nilitoka depuis deux jours…mimi nilienda kutafuta makala hapa njoo nilienza kurudia leo.”
“It’s far…here, I left two days ago…I went to look for charcoal there and now I came back today.”
Describing how trees are cut to build ovens and burn the wood, Ngwej argues that charcoal production is deregulated, and that replantation and tax-paying should be made obligatory for all charcoal workers. However, Maloba wa Maloba contrasts Ngwej’s words with those of the workers. For example, Kalebwe Mwenya Lusanji, an elegant, meditative and soft-spoken elder and charcoal producer, speaks frequently in the film, arguing that he does not believe that the forest can ever truly die:
“Kama miti inaisha? Ile ulizo, unauliza, miti mbele haitaisha”
“If the forest is dying?…This question you are asking, this forest will never die.”
Kalebwe Mwenya Lusanji then goes on to explain the oral history of Kantangese agriculture, how Batshokwe people from Angola taught them how to farm maize, which has the capacity to create another job market. However, Kalebwe emphasizes that charcoal is indispensable, because it is the basis for cooking. Another worker, also contradicting Ngwej’s words, insists that laborers are regulated in that they must buy licenses from state officials, which range from 50 USD to 100 USD, for each hectare of land. Clearly, in Carolle Maloba wa Maloba’s film we gain knowledge about the entire ecology of the work, and there is nothing pathetic or romantic about it. Through Maloba wa Maloba’s lens, we view Congo’s charcoal workers as thinking, speaking and acting subjects engaging in interlocution, and doing more than just surviving.
The workers form a chain, from those who cut down the trees and build the ovens, to those who sell the charcoal in the market. Those who cut down the trees and burn the wood, speak of the dangers of the work, how it risks burning down the forests during the dry season, and how this could land them in prison. Others, like Shadrak Gomez, a worker who delivers the charcoal to town, describe going from house to house, comparing prices. We also hear the laborers critiquing the customary chiefs of Katanga, who control the land and sell and resell plots, preventing farmers from cultivating maize, which would ease their dependency on imported maize from Zambia. Workers’ health is also constantly undermined by the smoke that is inhaled while burning wood. Unlike Gras’ focus on a what postcolonial scholar David Scott calls “a romantic narrative of overcoming,” Maloba wa Maloba’s focus on a community of laborers is a true valuation of their work.
In her documentary, we also hear from the market women who discuss how charcoal is necessary for cooking and sanitation. One woman who also is healer, named Mulanga Kasongo, discusses how charcoal can be used to treat diarrhea when boiled in hot water. This is an interesting point of contrast to Gras’ film, where Kabwita goes to the village store to buy a pharmaceutical drug to treat diarrhea. Diarrhea may be pervasive for people in Katanga. Furthermore, Mulanga Kasongo also argues in favor of the workers who sought out distant forests, pointing out the fact that the trees directly on the outskirts of the city were left alone deliberately, to allow for the rain that would be needed during the rainy season, as the trees were crucial to ensuring that water was properly circulated. Mulanga also emphasized that because of the lack of electricity for hot plates, charcoal remained a matter of survival:
“Baachirie bantu, bale bakukata makala, bakate makala, mais bakate ma distansi ya mbali batuachie (mi)tchi mu karibu mu juu ya mvula na hiyo ni tusaidii.
Na bantu kama banaacha kukata mitchi, kwani mitchi kuwa ni tusaidii, hatutapata bakala. Sasa hatutaweza tena kula!”
“If you stop those people who cut charcoal, they cut charcoal, but they cut it from far away. They left our trees which are close by because it helps us with the rain.
But if those people stop cutting trees, which help us, we will not have charcoal. Then we will not be able to eat!”
Katanga in the Global Environmental Movement
The overall direction to which the film points, is that of the problem of infrastructure, of constant cuts in electricity and of lack of governmental investment in solar energy. Without addressing this, deforestation will not end. Maloba wa Maloba’s film is made for a Congolese community and assists in our urgent global environmental movement. It is a contribution to our deep struggle to renegotiate our existence in the face of an ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction and potential planetary suicide. That is the purpose it serves. It is a dialogue with Katanga’s people who are reflecting on their own reality, a reality that an exoticizing film like Gras’ denies. By speaking with, and to Congolese people, Maloba wa Maloba’s film allows us to see the cultural complexity of the region. For example, we may note that Shaba Swahili has distinctive linguistic markers, borrowing French words and Tshibula phonetics, and that its speakers, like West Africans, use rhetorical speech forms (questions immediately followed by their answers) to make arguments:
“Majani ni protectíon ya bolongo na ya kusaidia moto kute? Kutembee.”
“The forest is the protection/filter for the air to help the heat to do what? To be driven away.”
– Kalebwe Mwenya Lusanji
“Tunapasha kupika mu nini? Mu makala.”
“We are able to cook with what? With coal.”
– Bileko wa Ba Mfumu
This entire cultural and discursive world of Kantanga is suppressed in Gras’ film. This is not just because Gras is unable to speak the language, but because his film uses a minimalist aesthetic strategy to convey a universal (and standardized) narrative. Gras’ film is not concerned with a complex narrative like Maloba wa Maloba’s, but rather relies on romanticist and colonial tropes to capture our imagination. Elaborating further in his interview with No Film School, Gras states:
“I thought about it as if it was a classical fiction, in a way. It’s just a classic story of the hero who leaves his family home to live an adventure, and to bring back something to his family. A lot of stories are just that, you know? The hero has to fight against the dragon to save his family or his village. In this way, it’s very narrative. I wanted the film to look like fiction. I wanted to pull narrative from reality. That’s why I choose not to appear at all. There is no voiceover, and you don’t see the process of filming at all. There are no interviews. The camera is like an eye.”
Unfortunately, this eye that gazes reduces and contains Kabwita’s life, particularly in those moments where he participates in the charismatic praise of a church service. There are many times where Kabwita is trying not to look into the camera, or as Gras says is “acting out his own life”. Not only that, Kabwita and Lydia Kasongo must feign normalcy while their neighbors constantly watch them in the background of the frame, with apparent questioning in their eyes. This is also occurs on the street when Kabwita is in the market place. Gras admits: “I’m white and the sound engineer is also white, so we were not very discreet.” Gras may have chosen not to appear in the film, but he remains the white elephant in the room, registered in the eyes of the people who are in the background. In one particular scene, a group of male students notice that Gras is filming them. They are visibly uncomfortable and suspicious as they walk into a building which, (we find out as the camera slowly pans left) Kabwita is sitting beside. These people may be silent, but their looks constitute perhaps what bell hooks in her book, Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) terms “an oppositional gaze”. Namely, they have a “looking relation that has an understanding and awareness of the politics of race and racism”. Despite their negation by the camera, the eyes of these people in the background are the only reminders that there may be another way of looking at Kabwita – a reformulation of his identity that takes him off the hero’s pedestal and returns him to ordinary community relations. This is why Maloba wa Maloba’s documentary is valuable in giving us the different perspectives. While employing a traditional documentary mode, it is successful in making us think critically about the intersectionality of labor.
As audiences we must look critically and vigilantly at patterns. We must acknowledge the sweet taste of romanticism, the greed that may lead to plagiarism, and the one-dimensionality of narratives which we are coaxed into buying into. ‘Positive’ images of Congo, which may try to dispel the colonial ones, cannot not teach us this. We can only take accountability for ourselves and invite others to enter into its circle. I urge everyone to watch Carolle Maloba wa Maloba’s documentary and support Congolese filmmakers and environmentalists. I leave us with Alice Walker’s words, shared recently during a talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival:
“Planetarily we have an arrow in the heart, and this is not cupid’s arrow, this is the arrow of having absolute awareness that we might well be in the final days, or years or decades of our planet… Art is something that helps us grow, it doesn’t need to be pretty at all, it just has to be useful and to add something to the understanding of our lives…People in deep sorrow struggle should realize that nature is the medicine and support.”
Disclaimer: The above still is taken from Carolle Maloba wa Maloba’s documentary film Makala (2014) and is used in this article for educational purposes. No copyright infringement intended.
Sumah, Yayra. “Looking at Congo: Makala (2014) vs Makala (2017)” CSSAAME Borderlines, 3 February 2019. http://cssaamejournal.org/borderlines/looking-at-congo-makala-2014-vs-makala-2017