It takes some time to get going, but once the pieces fall into place and the limitations of unattractive digital lensing are set aside, “Kinshasa Palace” becomes an engrossing study of family displacement and the socially corrosive ramifications of the recent African diaspora. Somewhere between docu and fiction (lack of press material makes it impossible to fully separate the two), helmer Zeka Laplaine’s affecting treatment of his brother’s disappearance, and the family dynamics that may have contributed to his departure, speak volumes about the legacy of an unstable Africa on the micro level. Fests should take note.
The Laplaine family is scattered around Europe and Africa, refugees from the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo that turned the resource-rich nation into contested fiefdoms of dictators and warlords. Kaze (helmer Zeka Laplaine, using an obvious anagram of his own first name) and younger brother Max (also voiced by the helmer) live in Paris, though recently Max has gone missing and the family is beginning to worry.
Kaze assumes his brother just needed to escape for a bit, but as time goes on, he starts rummaging through Max’s things to find some answers. Videos shot by his brother during trips to Lisbon, Kinshasa and Brussels show a man trying to come to terms with the personal legacy of his homeland’s upheavals, through interviews with his white father — part of Congo’s colonial past — and black mother, as well as numerous siblings. Filmed discussions Max made with his bright young kids Ambre and Gaspard give hints of his planned disappearance, so when Kaze finds a letter from Cambodia addressed to Max, he makes the trip to Siem Reap to try to track him down.
Whether Max’s disappearance is real or part of the fiction Laplaine constructs, the stories of family members sent away as children are too raw and honest to be invented from whole cloth. Sister Nenette, sent to Europe as an infant and only sporadically reunited with her parents and siblings, offers the most powerful condemnation of the way Congo’s wars have torn apart the fabric of family life.
Despite cultivating a look of casual, almost passive lensing, with figures often shot against bright lights that place them entirely in shadow, Laplaine has meticulously crafted a rough-hewn style to reinforce a sense of nonprofessional authenticity. The filmmaker himself, as Kaze, is never seen full on, remaining an elusive detective as he revisits a past he’s avoided for decades.
B&W footage of Kinshasa (then Leopoldville) in the optimistic days of Congo’s early independence are judiciously inserted, along with old family snapshots, offering a wrenching reminder of a time in the early 1960s when all of Africa seemed bright with promise.