Movie of the Week: Congo in Four Acts (2009)

The Democratic Republic of Congo, despite having a fertile landmass the size of Western Europe and a trove of natural resources that dwarf giants like the United States, ranks as one of the poorest countries on the planet and has been the home of one of largest conflicts in human history. The DRC (formerly Zaire) rarely makes more than a passing mention in the Western press, an afterthought in a world of wealth which is indifferent to the plight of poor countries.

Congo in Four Acts” is a series of four short documentary features about the DRC, made by Congolese artists and writers. Teams traveled to the DRC in 2008 and provided training and support so that Congolese could express that which directly concerns the citizens of the DRC.

Western filmmakers will always see the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa through western eyes, a filter of amazement and disgust, informed by culturally entrenched attitudes and western modes of thought. The result often overlooks the very real concerns of the African citizens themselves, which are often much more immediate than the larger issues of weather conditions and international politics.

“Congo in Four Acts” takes the viewer through the devastation of the DRC health “system,” an unfunded series of health providers providing basic health care and maternity services. Patients must pay for services rendered or be confined to the hospital until someone can pay for them or collateral produced. “Ladies in Waiting,” directed by Dieudo Hamadi, follows the hospital staff as they attempt to extract payment from impoverished patients, many of whom are the spouses of civil servants whose salaries have not been paid for months. Even a woman who bore a child of rape is confined in the hospital until she can locate the man who raped her so that he can pay. It’s a heartbreaking picture of a bankrupted government and the failure of a fee-for-service system (a system promoted by the Western powers in Africa) where most people have no means of earning cash.

“Zero Tolerance,” also by Dieudo Hamadi, tells the story of victims of rape, an endemic problem in the DRC. For years, the DRC military and other militant groups have used rape as a weapon of war. Militant groups routinely recruited young boys as soldiers and acclimated them to a culture that viewed sex as a tool of power and military strength and women as mere objects to be had. “Zero Tolerance” follows two boys who gang raped an older woman and sexually mutilated her, their arrest and an interview with desperate parents hoping to spare their children the horrors of a DRC prison. Also featured, is an older man, who rapes and brutally beats a local woman, who later dies of her injuries. Telling is the inability of the perpetrators to recognize their crimes and extent to which they attempt to manipulate the power structure to discredit their victims and assure their innocence.

Kiripi Katembo Siku directs two features, one on the rotting infrastructure of Kinshasa and the other on women forced to work daily breaking rocks in the open sun for a mere $.25 a day. Kinshasa routinely floods during the rainy seasons, exposing underground power lines and dissolving ancient rubber wire encasements. Exposed wires traverse the landscape. Brave local residents daily repair exposed wires by hand, risking their lives in order to provide power to local merchants who depend on it for their livelihoods. Children play around hot wires laying in pools of water and local residents complain about the unwillingness of the local government to provide even basic services.

Poverty forces women to work in the rock quarries to support their children, as husbands have long ago left or died in warfare or of HIV. They are poorly paid, yet their labors keep the DRC elite wealthy through sales to Western mineral dealers. It could be said that the western powers encourage the desperation and chaos of the DRC. Chaos allows business to dictate the terms of mineral commerce in the DRC, minus the annoyance of a strong government which regulates prices and working conditions.

Hamadi and Siku goes where no western journalist could ever go. At first, I was unaware that the film was made by Congolese and kept wondering how the filmmakers were able to easily shoot on the street. It is often risky for a Westerner to even take a simple photograph in Africa, and even if one does take one, the stares of the surrounding people change the dynamic of the photograph itself. It becomes less a photograph of Africans, and more a photograph of Africans staring at wealthy white people. What was more impressive, was the level of access that Hamadi had to her subjects. It is clear from the film that her subjects feel comfortable opening up regarding their plights, hiding nothing in their heart wrenching stories of violence and pain. A western filmmaker could never get this level of honesty in interviews.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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