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Difficult and dreaming in Congo

Makala ("Litter")
Regissør: Emmanuel Gras

An indomitable will meets the hopelessness of this portrait of a coal breeder in Congo.


A surrealistic craft was glimpsed in the light of an oncoming car; strapped to a rickety bike is a moving mountain of coal sacks, water jugs, loose plastic, extra shoes and more. A skinny, tall man pushes it up a jagged and unpredictable hill without paying attention to the dust cloud swirling around him. The ugly boy represents not only all his dreams, but also basic necessities of life. The human ant has its feet well planted in tall rubber boots and uses the body as a diagonal barbell. The road to the city is long and dangerous, he is alone and exposed in the dark. Heavy trucks pound dangerously close by.

Cinematic masterpiece. The movie sneaks quietly under my skin. It follows the sober and low-key closely on Kabwita Kasongo. The 28-year-old family father is one of many poor people in the Congo who continue the old tradition of charcoal production for sale in the cities. The film takes time and dares to be stripped simple in the expression. Fascinated, I experience an unpredictable calm and serenity as I get time to join our protagonist in his demanding everyday life.

Kabwita enters the gray light with two axes on his back and stops at a gigantic, ancient tree. He is sure to chop deeply. The cut is like a small tile compared to the huge perimeter of the tree. It twitches in me when he rolls the wooden fight over with a little puff; what, just before, rises high above the vegetation with one hidden by small bushes and scrub.

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Given the tree's dimension and majestic sky-highs, the fallout is not a one-man job – the film is a documentary, but deliberately utilizes the film's method. The camera angles are particularly well thought out and often emphasize action on a more symbolic existential plane. Thus, the film has both an unusual cinematic flow and picturesque images that stick to memory.

The film is a documentary, but deliberately utilizes the feature film method. 

Director Emmanuel Gras was on a completely different film recording as a film photographer in Congo. Then he was fascinated by the sight of the coal breeders pushing on his lead-heavy coal seams on flimsy bicycle wheels in reverse. The sisyphosis aspect of coal breeders' wear and tear for life is the seed of the film's explosive power. The film was the first documentary with participation in the Critics Week in Cannes and also won the Grand Prix de Jury.

Ever Foundry. I get associations with German pre-war artist Käthe Kollwitz's expressionist charcoal drawings and sculptures of hungry, depleted workers. Kabwita's clean-cut face has an expressive dynamic and an immense register of emotion that we usually only see with really big Bollywood or Hollywood stars. Kabwita's body language is just as expressive.

The director first had another protagonist. Gras did the right thing when he switched to Kabwita, who ruthlessly offers his many emotions and jails through his indomitable determination to master when he is so close to existence. His sweaty, smoky, week-long wear touches. As branches and trunks turn into charcoal, I get to know humans and what makes bloodshed worth it. Glimpses I get to see the warmth, humor and intimacy Kabwita shares with his passionate, teasing wife Lydia and her loving toddlers.

The film does not use words to comment on its point of view. The scenes speak for themselves. The family's only protein is fried rats, which are still on the menu; deforestation and loss of under vegetation have left only the rats of wildlife. We have become aware of Congo's violent, brutal contemporary history through the Moland / French case, but how forest and agricultural opportunities have been destroyed is new. Kabwita is just one of countless. The meager, inhospitable landscape he provides on his three-day walk on foot tells of the conflict between the ongoing, fatal deforestation and the need for a basis of life. Everywhere it goes from burning forest.

How does a man like him survive, who has to rely on an industry that stands to chop? What prospects does he have? The questions are many while I watch the movie.

The director recreates the scene that triggered the film: Kabwita is last in a group of three where everyone shoves on homemade, garbage bag installations on thin bicycle tires. Hidden in them is their precious cargo – the coal it has taken weeks to burn in makeshift peat kilns.

In the sweat of his face. Then the unthinkable happens. Kabwita's dream is hit by a truck and driven over in the ditch – a bike and bags are smashed. How can he alone without tools manage to save the load that is scattered beyond and continue the journey towards a better life? His despair hits his stomach.

Miraculously, three passersby stop to help. Kabwita organizes them as steadily as an experienced construction manager. He manages to continue, but he's changed. The physical exhaustion has gotten him more now. Is it the dream that has slipped out of reach? The one about enough revenue for the ceiling tiles and expansion of the one-bedroom house? What he should plant fruit trees around – mango, orange, apple, and even a palm tree.

It is the meeting between mankind's ability to bloodlust and to imagine a better life that gives the film dynamism. At the same time, the film sets the little man's dream against the depletion and collapse of the ecosystem. What good is it to plant a few trees when the nutritional basis for so many in the region is coal?

The bicycle wheel rolls from yellow to white dust. Getting your eyes on something other than the exhausting challenges reflected in Kabwita's face is doing well.

Depleted. He walks smoothly and tenaciously, in the same rhythmic and defiant way as when he cut down the giant tree. Now it is Kabwita Kasongo's own dignity that will go to the ground.

By the town, the local mafia is waiting to demand "tolls". Kabwita begs and prays for her sick child, is broke. The mafia doesn't give up, demands its. So much easier a litter bag is for the one who steals.

Promotion in the city takes days to get enough price for the coal – the medicine he has to buy at least makes a big dent in the earnings. Kabwita and his load are exposed where he half-sleeps against a wall. I find relief when he seeks refuge in a makeshift church. But the prayer he utters there seems contrived – has the director arranged it all?

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Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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