Poised between documentary and fiction, “Kinshasa Kids” benefits greatly from both; its open approach to its non-pro Congolese actors never seems scripted, and its clear narrative throughline never feels waylaid by documentary drift. The kids here form a makeshift, instrument-free band, and though music yields many epiphanies for youngsters and auds alike, any hope it might evoke about the future remains strictly within the children’s pie-in-the-sky dreams. Neither glossing over nor dwelling on the obvious detritus of years of brutal civil war, this weirdly upbeat musical visits an unimaginable milieu whose terrible exoticism could easily lure arthouse crowds.
Belgian helmer Marc-Henri Wajnberg opens the pic in the middle of a bloody, hysterical village exorcism wherein the priest bites open the belly buttons of children to unravel their umbilical cords, thus removing the evil spirits of young witches or “shegues,” usually to no avail. When a woman summons her stepson, Jose (Jose Mawanda), to be next, he takes off, winding up on the streets of Kinshasa with thousands of other kids thus marginalized by step-parents unwilling to raise someone else’s child, and blaming all the world’s ills on these unfortunate castoffs.
Jose finds first rejection, then acceptance from a loose gang of kids who huddle together at night for safety and sing together by day for pennies. A street musician dubbed Bebson de la Rue (Bebson Elemba) encourages them, promising they can perform with him and his group of adult singers and musicians. But Bebson cannot be counted on, drunkenly sleeping through one date and hiring a decrepit truck that breaks down for a major gig with the legendary Papa Wemba.
Nevertheless, rehearsals in narrow alleyways and a rooftop concert provide joyous occasions for rhythmically edited musical interludes. The pic’s showstopper, though, assumes a totally unexpected form, the handheld camera following the kids into a kind of marketplace where each corner harbors musicians of various persuasions. The kids chance upon a choir and orchestra performing a Mozart requiem, its soaring strains producing an awe that has nothing to do with highbrow appreciation and everything to do with the sheer beauty of the voices raised in hosannas.
But, for the most part, these children’s lives contain little uplift or transcendence. They work at whatever opportunity presents itself, carrying loads, shining shoes (though the streets are so broken up and loaded with garbage, one wonders why anyone even bothers), picking pockets, fending off police or being forced to share the fruits of their criminality with them. They find part-time employment and occasional meals with Josephine (Josephine Nsimba Mpongo), who runs an outdoor restaurant, but she herself is being evicted by her greedy landlord.
The documentary-like rawness of the camerawork and unevenness of the kids’ musical talents (though a hat-sporting Michael Jackson wannabe struts a mean moonwalk) nicely counterpoint the pic’s linear storytelling.