“Downstream to Kinshasa”: Congo’s Documentary Film with Potential to Heal Trauma

The Congolese film “Downstream to Kinshasa” (in French “En Route Pour le Milliard”) was one of only three documentaries selected for screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2020.  The stars of the film are members of a Kisangani theatre group: “The Kisangani Zombie Theatrical Troupe”.  And they are all amputees.  Maimed by the “Six Day War” of Congolese proxy armies armed and funded by Uganda and Rwanda, they are not, however, “victims” except in the minds of those to whom they appeal for respect and the compensation promised but never delivered since the year 2000 conflict.  In their troupe performances, crafted from the nightmarish scenes they suffered, and their persistence in claiming what is due them as human beings, they rise above their fates with dignity and power.

This film puts on our screens the harsh conditions of Congolese life along with the exuberance and vitality of a people for whom dance, music and performance are not just “art” or “culture” but the source of a spirit-driven life itself. We accompany several members of the theatre troupe on a pilgrimage to Kinshasa to claim the justice due the thousands of survivors wounded by the War.  Using a hand held camera, the young filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi masterfully disappears in filming the arguments, the joshing, the singing, the distress of the group on their 1700 km plus journey.  Anyone with experience of Africa will appreciate the authenticity and truth of this portrayal of contemporary life in Congo, and anyone with a heart will thrill to its intimate portrayal of the human spirit at its strongest and deepest reaches.

Prior to its official premiere in Paris last month, the reviewer in the film magazine Cahier du Cinema wrote, “Hamadi captures at the same time the constant suffering and endurance of his subjects, giving them with his lighting and framing the tormented power of August Rodin’s group sculptures”.  Although delayed by the pandemic, the film’s screenings this year are likely to earn the filmmaker the praise and international recognition he has already experienced in Africa. In a recent Jeune Afrique article he was hailed as the most talented documentary filmmaker of Subsaharan Africa.

The 37 year old Hamadi, often working alone, has turned his camera on the Congo’s women’s healthcare, the nation’s electoral process and education system as well as the scourges of child abuse and sexual violence countered by the civil society’s attempts to make a difference in the context of severe repression.  In an interview with Jeune Afrique the filmmaker was asked if he considered himself an “engagé” (activist) filmmaker.  “Wherever I focus my camera in Congo,” he responded, “I film injustice, inhumane things going on, revolting social problems.” 

In the same interview, he explained what was behind his decision to leave his pre-med studies for a career in film.  “Through film you can communicate everything that is moving, on the one hand tragic but also positive in my country.”  He then elaborated in eloquent fashion, “In spite of 80 years of colonialism, a 32 year dictatorship and all the atrocities that you have lived and seen, such as the ones described in my latest film, the country still exists and holds on.  And as you can also see in the film, the courage of the people, their dignity, and their strength of character enable them to continue to believe in the future.”  When the journalist commented that he could be said to aspire to heal his country with his art he remained down to earth. “I heal myself above all.  When one has grown up in a country like mine, one cannot avoid suffering some trauma.”

Hamadi was a 16 year old living in Kisangani when the Six Day War took 1000 lives, injured thousands and destroyed hundreds of buildings.  While making his film “Maman Colonelle” in 2017 in Kisangani he knew, “I just had to return to what people in that film cannot forget, the stigmata of this war that they carry in their flesh.”  Another strong motivation was the fact that most youth and adults in the capital of Kinshasa and the western half of the country had no memory of the horrors suffered by Kisangani residents in the East.

The “buzz” surrounding the “Downstream to Kinshasa” Cannes screening has stirred Congo’s Department of Human Rights to some action.  They have finally taken an interest in the Kisangani protestors.  Some have been assisted in returning to home and a fund is growing for those who remain in Kinshasa.  Most significantly, the International Court of Justice has resumed hearings on Ugandan compensation payments for its role in the conflict.  Meanwhile, this documentary will continue to touch viewers around the world with its powerful witness of the strength and beauty of some extraordinary human beings.

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I acknowledge my appreciation for the fine Jeune Afrique  article on “Downstream to Kinshasa” and Dieudo Hamadi which can be found at:

https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1241152/culture/dieudo-hamadi-ou-que-je-place-ma-camera-en-rdc-je-filme-linjustice/

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How to View the Film:

You will need to open an account on vimeo.com .  Once you are registered with them, go to the search box and enter “Downstream to Kinshasa”.  There you have the option of renting for 48 hour viewing at $4.99 or purchasing the film at a bargain price of $9.99.

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