Congo River

Thierry Michel

Belgium/France 2005, 116 min.

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.

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