EMMANUEL GRAS’s documentary Makala (Cert. U) is about Kabwita Kasongo and his wife, Lydie, living in a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Amid a devastated landscape, the staple diet is made up from rats, maize, cassava, a few poultry, and the occasional pig. Trees are felled to make charcoal (makala).
To provide for his family, Kabwita undergoes by bike a punishing itinerary to sell his goods near and far. His trip turns into what a preacher later calls “the journey of an honest man”, as he realises more and more what life’s true values are.
The method of filming invites the question: when do documentaries tip over into becoming feature films? Gras is a great admirer of two feature filmmakers, Gus Van Sant (Gerry) and Bela Tarr (The Turin Horse), both of whom use uninterrupted extended takes of incidents seemingly peripheral to the main story, and yet help viewers appreciate the context in which the main characters operate. Makala spends a scene focusing on a wheel almost with a life of its own as it struggles across sand, which sharpens our understanding of Kabwita’s labours
There is no doubting the veracity of what is depicted. Kabwita clearly suffers as the camera crew records the cruel conditions that he endures to ply his trade. There are some other pains that he just cannot bear. En route, he visits his sister-in-law, who is looking after the Kasongos’ daughter Divine, bringing her a pair of shoes. Kabwita refuses to see her, fearing that he would be unable to manage the sadness of being separated from her.
Certain adversities, though deeply affecting him, he accepts as part of what it is to be alive. When he is knocked off his bike, there is still room for rejoicing as people bundle up his scattered cargo for him. Kabwita encounters thieves with whom he is able to find rapport. Would this have occurred, one wonders, if the filmmakers had not been present?
There are material disappointments, but at least he can now buy medicine for a sick child. As for many Congolese, his religious beliefs are important to him. A prayer meeting becomes a time for the man to feel at one with others living in similarly deprived conditions. Through joining in songs, they express their hopes and/or find release from despair by falling into trances. The director, though himself an atheist, admits to finding the Christian worship deeply moving. Instead of Kabwita’s being a latter-day Sisyphus, pointlessly forcing his bike in one uphill struggle after another, it feels more like a pilgrim’s progress.
There is an ever-present danger that the impressive aesthetic qualities of both camerawork and a haunting cello soundtrack could glamorise the very harshness that the film seeks to expose. Gras manages to stop just short of doing so, and, in the process, demonstrates how Kabwita has, in effect, internalised a dictum of St John of the Cross: “I am not made or unmade by the world but by my attitude to it.”
“Kabwita and his achievements are very beautiful to me,” Gras says. “I wanted to bring that beauty to life.” He succeeds.