A young woman navigating the mean streets of Kinshasa learns tough lessons in survival in a Congolese helmer’s debut feature,“Maki’la,” which world premieres as part of the Berlinale’s Forum program.
Director Machérie Ekwa Bahango saw a personal challenge in the story of “Maki’la,” whose scrappy heroine was orphaned at the age of 13 and forced to fend for herself in Congo’s capital. While developing the script, Bahango says she tried to imagine herself in Maki’s shoes, determined not to shy away from the darker plot twists as she envisioned life on the street.
“During the production, it was difficult for me to watch,” says Bahango, as the camera traveled into a world where rape and violence against women are commonplace. Still, she says she felt compelled to depict the difficult circumstances facing Maki and her peers. “It’s a reality that I cannot hide.”
A few years ago, Bahango might have seemed an unlikely candidate to venture into the rough underbelly of Kinshasa. The 23 year old was studying law when she decided to teach herself the basics of cinema by watching videos online. Though few opportunities exist for young women behind the camera in Congo, she began working with other filmmakers and developing her own screenplays.
Her biggest break, though, came from Alain Gomis, when the Franco-Senegalese helmer arrived in Kinshasa to shoot his 2017 Berlinale Silver Bear-winner, “Felicité.” Bahango was brought onboard to serve as a translator, helping to bring the script to life in Lingala, her mother tongue.
The experience of working with one of the giants of contemporary African cinema amounted to priceless on-the-job training for the young helmer, who says that Gomis’ encouragement “really inspired me to make films.”
The seeds for “Maki’la” had already been planted when Bahango began meeting orphans on the streets of Kinshasa and encouraging them to share their stories. Though they’d been stigmatized by society, Bahango recognized that “they also have dreams, that they are living life like everyone else,” she says.
Bringing their lives to the screen wasn’t easy. Financing was a challenge — at one point, her father sold his car for the equivalent of $8,000 for Bahango to make her movie. The film had stalled in post-production when Alain Modot, of the International Distribution of Films and Fiction from Africa (known by its French acronym, Diffa), saw the movie’s poster on Facebook and got in touch with Bahango.
Modot traveled to Kinshasa to screen the footage and was impressed by the young director’s confidence. After showing the trailer to execs at Orange Studio in Paris, they decided to come onboard. Pic was produced by Congo’s Tosala Films, and co-produced by Orange Studio, Lennox, and Inzo Ya Bizizi. International sales are being handled by Diffa and Orange Studio.
Bahango is hopeful that her success so far will inspire other Congolese women hoping to find their way into the film industry. “I think that women artists in the Congo need help,” she says, “especially to discover themselves and know that they are capable of doing great things.”