This bustling city in the eastern Congo might seem like the perfect setting for a Hollywood disaster film. Devastated by a volcanic eruption in 2002, its streets paved with jagged black rock and covered in gray ash, it seems a fitting symbol of the war and strife that have plagued Congo’s restive North Kivu region for nearly two decades.
But a group of young filmmakers is trying to turn the city into a symbol of more than just conflict. Despite the cycles of violence that ebb and flow like the lake that laps against its shores, organizers of the Salaam Kivu Film Festival want Goma to be a city of hope.
“Before the war, the Kivu provinces were known as a major tourist attraction,” says filmmaker Petna Ndaliko, one of the festival’s founders. “We want to bring hope back to our region.”
Having wrapped its fourth year Oct. 25, the fest has become a growing symbol of pride and perseverance for Congolese filmmakers. The 10-day festival brings together African filmmakers, peace activists and supporters of the arts from Goma’s large international community.
It is Congo’s only international film festival, largely funded by Ndaliko and fellow organizers, along with help from the Spanish Cooperation Fund, the Swiss Cooperation Fund, and the local government of North Kivu.
Along with screenings scattered throughout the city, the event offers a showcase for young artists, musicians and dancers from across the eastern Congo. This year’s festival included a concert by Congolese rappers in the city’s soccer stadium, and a hip-hop dance contest that drew nearly 300 participants.
At a workshop hosted by Ndaliko and Kenyan filmmaker-activist Ndungi Githuku, young screenwriters were urged to see film as a constructive force in shaping their country.
Ndaliko’s inspired message strikes a chord in a city accustomed to pulling itself up by the bootstraps. In the wake of the 2002 eruption, nearly one-fifth of the city was destroyed, leaving more than 100,000 people homeless. But many simply rebuilt their houses atop the cooled lava flow. Business resumed.
Today Goma is a hive of industry. Women sell fruit and fresh fish on blankets spread across the black volcanic rock. Gasoline is sold to passing motorists from jerry cans on the side of the road.
Last year, as rebel forces advanced to within 15 miles of the city, and wary peacekeepers patrolled the streets, fest organizers insisted that the show go on. The city was declared a red zone by the United Nations, but thousands still gathered for screenings and performances in a sweeping act of defiance.
Now a restive peace has returned to Goma, and Ndaliko remains hopeful for the future of both the festival and the city.
“You don’t build a house to destroy it,” he said.