Simplicity is the key to the somber beauty of “Makala,” a documentary depicting a Congolese charcoal-maker doing his utmost to raise his family under penurious conditions. French helmer-lenser Emmanuel Gras’ camera embraces the subject’s every move with such rapt intimacy and cinematic poetry it’s easy to forget this is not a fictional drama. Reportedly the first documentary selected by Cannes’ Critics Week sidebar, the film snatched the Grand Prize, which should open doors to a few select theaters, on top of its long fest legs.
The title of the documentary filmmaker’s third feature means “charcoal” in Swahili, one of four major local languages in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the course of the film, one will get to see where that charcoal comes from, how it’s made and eventually sold. But the process is not presented in an informative manner as a National Geographic program would. Instead, it’s evoked as a Herculean struggle, as in the stark cinematic opening when Kabwita Kasongo is seen felling a colossal tree. Gras makes it look like a task as heroic as battling a hydra. This is followed by a moment of downcast musing, as if primordial Nature is mourning the rape of a wood nymph.
Kasongo is a 28-year-old who lives in the town of Kolwezi in the southern province of Katanga. His ambitions are as basic as they are universal — to build a house for his wife Lydie and three daughters, surrounded by enough land to raise livestock and do some subsistence farming. The only livelihood he knows is making charcoal from chopped and slowly flamed firewood, a backbreaking task that Gras observes with hallowed silence, devoid of any superfluous effects or exposition.
By the time Kasongo stuffs the charcoal into giant sacks and loads them onto his bicycle to take to town, Gras’ cinematography enters the realm of the symbolic. Through a gray and ochre cloud of dust and smog, Kasongo pushes the bicycle uphill, a veritable embodiment of Sisyphus. The vehicle, keeling over under the weight, looks like the titular beast of burden in “The Turin Horse.”
Incidentally, Gras’ use of steadicam and even the plangent cello solos composed by Gasper Claus are akin to Bela’s Tarr’s style in his last film. On this almost wordless 30-mile walk, the camera gets so close it magnifies the pearls of sweat that glisten and dangle from the handsome man’s eyelashes. Only once do we get a wider perspective, when the lens is pulled back to reveal he is not alone but among a line of others pushing their charcoal-stacked bicycles.
The abstract quality of these images is partly redressed by a humane scene when Kasongo makes a stopover at his sister-in-law’s house to bring a pair of new sandals for his daughter, Divine, who’s lodging there. He displays strenuous self-control in choosing to call on them after his little girl has gone to sleep, and refusing to spend the night — because he couldn’t bear to see her cry when he takes leave in the morning. That emotional strength contrasts warmly with an earlier scene, when he whines like a baby while Lydie extracts a splinter from his foot.
Although DRC is rich in natural resources like diamonds and coal, decades of war have led the populous central African country’s level of human development to be ranked 176 out of 187 nations. “Makala” consciously eschews hard facts or figures and avoids making any social commentary, but the barbecued rats that make it onto the family’s dinner plate speak volumes about the depleted food chain. Yet, even as Kasongois is confronted by hard-nosed people throughout the film, and his determination seems to waver toward the end of his trip, audiences will come away believing that he and his lot are not bereft of hope. Ultimately, the film proves its worth by betraying a minimum of condescension or intrusiveness.
In spite of a lean budget, craft contributions boast a distinct style that benefits from well-planned shoots and clean, chronological editing by Karen Benainous. Of particular note are night scenes lit with a soft flicker that transports the viewer to an evocative pre-electric milieu.