Cleverly and seamlessly blending various styles of documaking, Jacques Sarasin’s “On the Rumba River” continues the fine roll of French nonfiction pics with its look at superstar Congolese singer Wendo Kolosoy aka “Papa Wendo.” Key to the film’s power is its total involvement in Wendo’s musicmaking and its assumption of an intelligent aud that doesn’t require loads of explanatory material about the Congo’s history, politics and culture. Pic will prove a big draw with World and African music crowds as well as doc lovers and those interested in current African affairs, and looks assured of fest and distrib interest worldwide.
In the context of a 2004 reunion of many of Wendo’s fellow musicians dating back to the late 1940s, Sarasin observes Wendo in a fascinating range of settings that suggest the musical and social textures of his work. A studio-lensed session uses close-ups and dramatic lighting to examine Wendo and his players on an assortment of African and Western instruments, while a partially staged sequence at Wendo’s home depicts him as an aging musician with a henpecking wife. Wendo tries to explain to her that it’s hard to record, since many of his longtime fellow musicians are dead.
The devastation in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa — a result of the vast nation’s ongoing civil war — is suggested not only in haunting footage of the shipwrecks clogging the Congo River but in long tracking shots of the miles of unpaved streets where Wendo searches for sax player Joseph Munange in advance of a scheduled reunion gig.
The gig comes off, and for a marvelously sustained sequence, all of the tragedies and cares of Wendo’s beloved Congo fade in the face of his band of artists performing in a courtyard with groups of dancers. Sarasin appears to be a filmmaker who knows when he’s captured lightning in a bottle, and wisely lets Wendo’s group play their magic.
Cinematographer Remon Fromont ably deploys his HD camera to capture Wendo at every prime moment, with pic’s fine images blending with a strong ethnographic sensibility. Music recording is superb, while choice to end on a particularly grim, political note is, in this context, startling but wise.