Greetings again from the darkness. We citizens of the United States complain if our coffee is too strong or the line to purchase our new shoes is too long. In fact, we are world famous for our tendency to complain about anything and everything. Filmmaker Daniel McCabe never compares us directly to those in his subject country – but then he doesn’t need to. The words and pictures speak for themselves. For most, if not all of their lives, citizens of The Congo have been immersed in war … each day a struggle to survive, with only rare moments of feeling safe.
McCabe’s approach is to show us the lives of three separate individuals – each different, yet the same. We meet Colonel Ndala, a Congolese Army officer and war hero who has 12 bullet wounds to show for his love of country. There is also Mama Romance, an illegal mineral dealer who for 10 years has risked her life to make a better one. Lastly, there is Hakiza Nyantaba, an elderly tailor who totes his sewing machine with him every time war forces him to evacuate his home for the latest displacement camp. Early in the movie, we learn that growing up a child in The Congo should be “paradise”, but instead it’s “misery”. We witness the misery through the eyes of these three people.
Through the altered voice of a shadowy military figure, director McCabe presents a timeline of the unfortunate history of this region, dating back to King Leopold II “rescuing” the enslaved citizenry from the Arabs … only to exploit the region’s vast rubber mineral supply for his own riches. We also learn about the power struggle for control of The Congo between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War, and the role neighboring countries Rwanda and Uganda have played in financing the multiple rebel factions (more than 50 and counting). This history lesson drives home the point that for the people of this area, regime changes, political corruption, self-serving involvement of other countries, and rebel uprisings are quite sadly, the way of life. As recently as 2016, President Joseph Kabila canceled the country’s election in order to extend his reign of power.
The film is beautifully photographed, and perfectly captures the often stunning landscape between violent bursts of war and personal fright. Mama Romance tells us that “hunger will teach you how to eat”, and with that, we understand the risks she takes. Colonel Ndala speaks to his dream of returning to his family farm life if somehow the never-ending war actually ends. Mostly we feel how these folks only experience joy and hope in short spurts. They are a resilient lot and their story deserves to be known, despite our being told “the country belongs to hell”.
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