Reporting from the Berlin Film Festival for the Canadian magazine Cinema Scope, Tony Rays described Congo River as a National-Geographic-style travelogue – which doesn’t begin to transcend its status as middling TV material. If only it was so simple. Congo River certainly has some of the didacticism that Rayns invokes here; the voice-over is not integrated particularly well, and there are moments of ethnographic voyeurism (such as scenes of a ritual scarring ceremony) that do indeed recall the simplicity of the much-reviled National Geographic (a form that has come to signify a relatively benign liberal curiosity that, while sometimes prurient and patronising, doesn’t strike me as worthy of the fire that is so often poured down upon it by many leftists). But there are stranger moments in the film as well.
One comes halfway through, when Thierry Michel meets with General Kabambi, head of the Maï-Maï warriors. This is a very strange sequence, and is edited in such a way as to make the General seem to change outfits numerous times; we see him in military fatigues (where he says he’s a bit like Moses for the Congolese), traditional African costume (where he talks about his role as a “broom-bearer” in Maï-Maï ceremonies), and sportswear (where we see him, once an assistant hands him his glasses, read from the book of Revelations). Michel shows him talking at length; aside from the changes of clothes, there is no attempt to use editing to make the talk seem smoother or crazier. And yet, this coolly shot sequence lends a quality of surrealism to the film.
In another sequence, taken from a small watercraft ambling up the river, we see shots of boisterous child soldiers, who, decked out in camouflage and armed with machine guns, sing “oh, corpse of a friend, I will die after you.” These images are certainly reminiscent of the mass-media images of child soldiers, but they feel cooler and weirder than anything one would find on TV. Part of this is about duration; this is not a very long sequence, but we get to see more of these kids‚ mannerisms than you generally would as part of a journalistic aesthetic. But it’s also about proximity; Michel, and his viewers, are a lot closer to these kids than most journalists, sharing a ride up a river that seems important to both of them.
So Congo River, although it has some conventional aspects, doesn’t strike me as typical television fare. The film is sometimes a bit on the exoticising side, but it’s also frequently quite unnerving. National Geographic, for sure, would have none of this.