Film Review: ‘This Is Congo’

Daniel McCabe's documentary mixes broad-brush history with a more vital present-tense exploration of the DRC's battle scars.

Daniel McCabe
Isaach De Bankolé (voiceover). (English, French, Swahili, Lingala dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2095768/

This is Congo” is a riskily broad, blunt title for a documentary about a territory still feverish with present-day conflict and an unhappily storied past; by nominally promising to show us Congo in all its glory and equivalent woe, American filmmaker Daniel McCabe’s busy, absorbing study sets itself a bar it can hardly hope to meet in just 90-odd minutes. Yet while its attempt at a potted colonial history of the country is merely cursory, “This is Congo” is strong medicine when it turns more selective: As a contemporary study of the violent struggle between the hamstrung Congolese national army and M23 rebel forces in the North Kivu region, the film is often blisteringly effective, venturing to the frontline in pursuit of raw war footage likely to open many an outside viewer’s eyes — or, at its harshest interludes, prompt them to squeeze tightly shut.

That vivid illustrating-the-headlines approach should give “This is Congo” considerable mileage on the festival circuit following its out-of-competition Venice premiere, particularly within a growing subset of human rights-themed programming. Niche theatrical distribution will follow, though wider television exposure is likely for a film that sometimes hovers between a small- and big-screen focus: Its archive footage integration and talking-head setups are straightforward enough, but the film soars when it plays up to McCabe’s grounding as a photographer, exploring the rapturous natural landscape, bustling incidental street life and rattling war-zone chaos of the Congo with wholly cinematic vigor.

“This is Congo” may be most propulsive when dealing in military matters — which duly come to dominate the running time — but the film feigns a more holistic structure, its perspective fractiously split between soldiers and civilians. Four figures emerge as the film’s key storytellers and conduits of narrative tension. On the fighting front, we’re introduced to “Colonel Kasongo” (real name withheld), a high-ranking but fairweather officer in President Joseph Kabila’s National Army who has repeatedly crossed over to the rebels’ side. (Unsurprisingly, he’s shot in darkness, with his verbal testimony dubbed by the great Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankolé.) Colonel Mamadou Ndala, meanwhile, requires no such obscuring of his identity. A bullish, magnetic military leader, he’s hailed as a national hero for his efforts in defending the North Kivu capital Goma from Rwandan and Ugandan-backed M23 (also known as Congolese Revolutionary Army) dissidents following their 2012 capture of the city — with the film’s rough timeline covering the following two years of conflict.

Mamadou, as he’s simply known to his followers, comes to dominate the film as emphatically as he does his forces — not just through his camera-ready charisma, a frankly disturbing asset as he gleefully shows off his army’s more abusive practices, but because he regrettably has the most complete tragic arc of all the human subjects here. “This is Congo’s” narrative structure is pinned on Mamadou’s rise and fall — well-publicized to those who have followed the conflict in the news, but framed by McCabe as a cruel twist.

By contrast, the film’s two civilian representatives can’t help but feel less integral to the whole, though their voices are individually compelling. Bibianne, nicknamed Mama Romance, is a single mother who has managed to support her family by smuggling and illegally trading gemstones from the mineral-rich Kivu region across national borders; Hakiza Nyantaba, meanwhile, is a professional tailor and itinerant refugee who has been forced to flee his home six times due to various military flare-ups, though his vintage Singer sewing machine is never left behind. Bibianne and Hakiza are our windows into the larger social ruin left in the war’s wake: McCabe, who acts as his own keen-eyed cinematographer, captures some of the film’s most vital footage simply by roaming the paths of a refugee displacement camp, where the gross lack of essential resources is stoically incorporated into daily routine.

There’s a lot of ravaged ground to cover here, and editor Alyse Ardell Spiegel does well to compress these differing, sometimes opposing, perspectives into an efficient encapsulation that won’t bewilder viewers unfamiliar with the Congolese crisis. Those who come to “This is Congo” with some prior knowledge may be more frustrated by its broad-brush-basics approach to explaining Belgian colonization and the post-independence power struggle between Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as its rather vague view on the current administration of Joseph Kabila — though a closing title card details the country’s delayed 2016 election and undue extension of Kabila’s presidency as a bitter kicker.

“This is Congo” instead excels when trading in details that can’t be more substantively gleaned from written history and journalism. McCabe’s film plainly conveys the persistent panic of living to a soundtrack of bullets, countered with the shrugging acceptance of destruction. In one of its most beautiful and disquieting images, children make a veritable jungle gym of a crashed plane, their undimmed life making the best of the region’s ghosts.

Film Review: 'This Is Congo'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 1, 2017. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Democratic Republic of the Congo-U.S.-Canada — Documentary) A Dogwoof presentation of a Turbo/Vision Film Co. production in association with T-Dog Productions, Sabotage Films, Thought Engine. (International sales: Dogwoof, London.) Producers: Geoff McLean, Daniel McCabe, Alyse Ardell Spiegel, Brendan Lynch. Executive producers: Ian Hague, Defne Tabori, Martha Rogers, Joslyn Barnes, Karol Martesko-Fenster, Geoff McLean, Gernot Schaffler, Thomas Brunner, Michael Cohl, Eli Cohl, Alcira Cappola, William Ashley, Arni Johannson, Paul Dillman. .

Crew: Director, camera (color): Daniel McCabe. Editor: Alyse Ardell Spiegel. Music: Johnny Klimek, Gabriel Mounsey.

With: Isaach De Bankolé (voiceover). (English, French, Swahili, Lingala dialogue)

More Film

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck's Addiction Drama Set for Awards-Season Release

    Warner Bros. has given Ben Affleck’s untitled addiction drama an awards-season-friendly release date of Oct. 18. The film, which has been known previously as “The Has-Been” and “Torrance,” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Affleck as a former basketball player struggling with addiction, which has led to him losing his wife. As part of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content