The horror, the horror,” the phrase Joseph Conrad used to describe the 19th century Congo in his novella “Heart of Darkness,” also echoes throughout Pippa Scott’s angry yet elegant docu, “King Leopold’s Ghost.” The sprawling Congo was one of the African nations that suffered the most human and cultural destruction during the European colonial period, yet Scott’s intent is not to lay out a history lesson, but to draw connections between international policies toward the Congo then and now. Already a fest favorite, pic will travel around the globe, attract distribs and secure solid vid and cable biz.
Craig Matthew’s glistening color hi-def lensing presents an almost blindingly beautiful country covered in vast patches of green forest, which the ferociously churning Congo River cuts through. Such beauty is all the more poignant as the film, supported by the talking head expertise of a bevy of historians and experts, relates the bloody saga of Belgium’s King Leopold II, who assumed the throne in 1865 and enviously watched as larger European neighbors gobbled up African lands for their resources.
While France, England, the Netherlands and other nations secured footholds in mostly coastal African lands, the Congo remained mostly off-limits to outsiders until explorer Henry Morton Stanley forged a route through the enormous central African country — three times the size of Texas.
As explained by historian Adam Hochschild, author of the tome on which pic is based, Stanley was an agent for private interests interested in building routes out of the Congo to export its cornucopia of natural resources back to Europe. The work, explicitly shown here in a heartbreaking gallery of photographs from the period, was done with forced labor, effectively militarizing what had been a land of tribal alliances.
Leopold not only managed to control Congo as, literally, his own private reserve, but waged a successful public relations campaign to convince the world that his African project was a humanitarian, anti-slavery enterprise.
Scott’s detailed script shows how Leopold’s unmistakably evil ruse was exposed by a series of authors like Conrad and investigative writers from George Washington Williams to Roger Casement and the indefatigable Edmund Dene Morel.
But, “Ghost” throws its most powerful punch in its second half, reporting on contempo events as a direct repeat of the ghastly Leopold era.
Pic reps a less poetic and artful, but perhaps more informative, companion to Hubert Sauper’s corrosively brilliant “Darwin’s Nightmare,” which observes how weapons manage to pour into the Congo region through Tanzania, propelling a chronic series of ongoing wars.
Narration is shared by a group of fine voices, including Don Cheadle, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell and Tom Wright.