Amazingly, for somebody who never watches movies, I saw two good documentaries this weekend. Both of them are from Thierry Michel. I saw one of them during a special screening in Kinshasa (who knew that there was a screening room in Congo?) during which Thierry introduced his work. The captain of the ship of one of the documentary was also there at the screening.
I suddenly realized that I had been introduced to Mr. Michel's work before: I saw the shocking "Donka Hospital" during my International Public Health class and sat watching images of a disfunctional hospital in Africa--I didn't know hospitals could be that bad. The ones I see here are far worse.
"Mobutu, Roi du Zaïre"
What happens when Congo fights for its independence, only to have the Belgian government withdraw quickly in 1960, leaving very few skilled and qualified Congolese to lead to country?
A kleptocracy, stupid!
The documentary shows the mind-bogglingly fast rise of Mobutu, from officer in the Belgian army, to journalist invited to the World Fair in Belgium, to General of the Congolese army, to 'President for Life' of the newly renamed Zaïre.
How can someone rise so quickly you ask?
Through cunning and violence. Like the leopard he liked to wear as a hat, Mobutu was sly--associating himself with the highests in command; and carnal--killing without pity those who were in his way. Increasingly megalomaniac, Mobutu built one lavish palace after another, throwing glorious parties in his name. Backed by his unpaid soldiers, the army enforced his rule while serving themselves to the country's riches. Refusing to see the country declining into terror and utter poverty, the 'King of Zaïre' became increasingly frail, paranoid and two-timing.
Seeing him cry on camera though, you almost feel sorry for how deluded this man is. Great interviews by foreign journalists, his Congolese ministers and his son-in-law.
This second documentary follows a barge and its captain through the easy stretch of the Congo River, carrying almost a small village worth of people and their barnyard animals. Beyond that, waterfalls make the passage inaccessible.
As the barge stops in villages at night and during the day (through endless administrative fees--the only system remaining intact from the Colonial period, ha!), we hear villagers recount the days of colonialism and Mobutu. We see another barge stuck in sandbank for three months and sigh with relief as our barge continues safe and sound. We meet old intellectuals stuck in the middle of the country contemplating the infrastructure abandoned: abandonned train tracks from the Belgian period, electricity towers built 25 years ago with the promise of electricity (the village leader says with a hint of malice "we've been told it's coming soon"), a beautiful botanist university and its lone remaining professor with 55,000 samples of plants and birds decaying and gathering dust, a great crumbling palace belonging to Mobutu ("this reminds me of the arrogance of the man while his people were starving" says a village man) and a poor local hospital performing gynecological surgeries on raped women in the East.
Thierry Michel manages to score a great interview with the Chief Mahi Mahi, whose crazy speeches are laughable and scary at the same time.