When the Six-Day War broke out in his native Congo two decades ago, documentary filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi—whose film “Downstream to Kinshasa” is the first Congolese film to be an official selection in the history of the Cannes Film Festival—was living in the Musicians’ Quarter in downtown Kisangani, “relatively untouched by the belligerent shells that clashed mainly in the outskirts of the city,” he tells Variety.
But the devastating toll of that conflict between Ugandan and Rwandan forces—one of the many battles that constituted the wider Second Congo War—is something Hamadi felt compelled to return to as a filmmaker. “This terrible war has almost been forgotten today, and we run the risk of seeing these atrocities happen again at any time,” he says. “A work of memory became absolutely necessary.”
“Downstream to Kinshasa” (En route pour le milliard) centers on a group of war victims who have spent 20 years fighting for official recognition of the conflict, as well as compensation for their losses. Frustrated by the apathy of local leaders, they decide to take their case to the capital, Kinshasa, a perilous journey along the length of the Congo River.
“What drew me to this story was the breath of life, the energy, the resilience of these victims of the Six-Day War,” says the director. “These people have been struggling for 20 years, in vain, to obtain compensation for the damage suffered. However, they are not discouraged. Nothing seems to affect their determination. They keep fighting.”
“Downstream to Kinshasa” was produced by Congolese outfit Kiripifilms and France’s Les Films de l’Oeil Sauvage, in co-production with Belgium’s Neon Rouge. Andana Films is pre-selling the film, currently in post-production, during Cannes’ Marché du Film Online.
Hamadi’s fifth feature is the latest in a growing, critically acclaimed body of work about the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast, resource-rich nation in the geographical heart of Africa that has been at the center of decades of bloody conflicts. Through previous films, such as the Berlinale players “Mama Colonel” (2017) and “Kinshasa Makambo” (2018), Hamadi—who also shoots and edits his own footage—has trained his camera on some of the social and political ills that plague his country, while also revealing the depth of humanity and warmth beneath its troubled surface.
Collectively, his documentaries offer a sweeping, kaleidoscopic portrait of modern-day Congo. “It’s true that my films respond to each other in a certain way. It is also true that when you put them next to each other, you can get a glimpse of my country,” says Hamadi. “I do not know if in the long term, all these films will end up constituting a coherent and edifying work. I can only hope so.”
The filmmaker is frank about the practical challenges of bringing those stories to light. “Financing African films remains a headache for most African directors and producers,” says Hamadi, who will appear in an online conversation hosted by Cannes Docs on June 26, with Directors’ Fortnight programmer and film critic Claire Diao.
The fact that “Downstream to Kinshasa” is the first Congolese film to be an official selection in the history of the Cannes Film Festival underscores the challenge for African filmmakers looking for a seat at the industry’s most prestigious tables. “I think that Congolese or African filmmakers should not wait until they are given ‘a place,’” Hamadi says. “What they give you, they can also take from you. We have to manage to create our own place in this industry. It is the only way for us to exist fully and with dignity.”
He continues: “If I had magical powers, I would make sure that the African continent quickly acquired several category A film festivals, as well as many cinemas. Because to be able to shine in the world, African cinema must first shine in Africa.”