“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.