A demanding but brilliantly directed documentary about life in the Congo.




This distinctive documentary, winner of the Nespresso Grand Prize at Cannes last year, is the work of the photographer and filmmaker Emmanuel Gras. This, his third feature, is, I believe, the first to be shown here and the moment that it begins one recognises it as being the work of a true artist. Indeed, the look of it is so striking that I was reminded of one of the finest documentaries that we saw in 2017, Rahul Jain's Machines.


Makala is set in the Congo and Gras's aim is to use all of his pictorial skills to make us experience the life of its central figure, Kabwita Kasongo. This man has a wife, Lydie, and two young children to support and to achieve this he relies on chopping down trees and then firing the wood to create charcoal, which he can sell. To find purchasers he has to undertake a journey of 59 kilometres from Walemba where he lives to reach an urban centre and transporting the charcoal in sacks involves pushing a heavily laden bike every inch of the way.


Makala may or may not include scenes that are reenactments for the camera but it seems wholly authentic. The slow pace that marks this film - the opening is a long drawn out reveal of the work that Kabwita does - is linked to imaginative camera angles and brilliant colour photography and together they create a film of real artistry. However, the art that is brought to bear never falsifies the realities of Kabwita's harsh existence. Instead, Gras's approach is one that makes us recognise just how much endurance is involved in Kabwita's way of life and that's so much the case that the exhausting journey taking several days may indeed exhaust the patience of some viewers.


But it is by making us share Kabwita's life in such detail that Gras without a touch of condescension gives us a film that broadens our horizons. This is contemporary life of a kind that is far removed from our image of the 21st century and Kabwita is sustained in his endurance by his simple but deep religious faith. This emerges in the  course of what can be seen in retrospect as being a three-part film: the first section portrays Kabwita's rural home life, the second the arduous journey and the third explores the nature of his urban destination with all its wheeling and dealing (the trip also enables him to visit relatives there). Important as religion is to Kabwita, it is questionable whether or not the film is right to spend so long in its last minutes featuring scenes in which he attends a church meeting. That doubt aside, this is distinguished filmmaking, not always an easy watch but appropriately challenging in that respect because it seeks to make us fully respect this man who prays to God for strength and for the ability to protect his family, a man who ultimately wins through.




Featuring  Kabwita Kasongo, Lydie Kasongo.


Dir Emmanuel Gras, Pro Nicolas Anthomé, Screenplay Emmanuel Gras, Ph Emmanuel Gras, Ed Karen Benainous, Music Gaspar Claus.


Bathysphere/Ciné+/Canal+/Cinémage 10-Dogwoof.
97 mins. France. 2017. Rel: 2 February 2018. Cert. U.