COLONIALISM: Four filmmakers search for a new way to tell the story of Kinshasa, looking to the city's performance artists and their subversion of colonialism's legacy.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 26, 2019


Anne ReijniersNizar SalehPaul ShemisiRob Jacobs


Belgium, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Faire-Part is a film about the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital of Kinshasa, and the way that the city is used by performance artists as a space of possibility to disrupt and rewrite the stories that have already been told about it. They «take matters into their own hands», refusing to let the legacy of colonialism and its distortion of truth go unchallenged or have the last say in defining their identities.

Documenting these vibrant and myriad interventions are four filmmakers, two Congolese (Paul Shemisi and Nizar Saleh) and two from Belgium (Anne Reijniers and Rob Jacobs), who together are searching for a way to present Kinshasa. Their «past is connected, therefore also their present» we are told, their differing perspectives in relation to the former Belgian colony forming a prism through which to see the nation anew. They explore fresh ways of staging a place previously stereotyped as a «hungry, dirty, crying city» in a multitude of existing stories. The loosely episodic, DIY, trial-and-error format is perfectly suited to the film’s embrace of play and experimentation as a means to identity reconstruction and to the notion that collective history is a living entity that is constantly in an unfinished process.

Faire-Part. Directors: Anne Reijniers, Nizar Saleh, Paul Shemisi, Rob Jacobs

Street theatre as intervention

«Man of cans, he’s here!» shouts a man on the street as a jaw-dropping creature cloaked entirely in soft-drink cans shakes its body to a drumbeat. A suit made from a multitude of condoms, worn by a performer in a neighbourhood known for prostitution, and a costume of mobile phone parts are similarly impressive, politicised outfits that make surprise appearances in public, raising awareness of health issues, consumerism and resource exploitation.

The city is a site ripe with imaginative transformation.

The flags of countries that bleed mineral resources from Africa, including the United Kingdom and the European Union, are washed with much fanfare in a large bucket by one performer before he waves them in front of the gathered crowd, as a symbolic purification of the corruption they represent. Women’s rights are also rallied for, with the enactment of the vanquishing of a black-clad, masked would-be rapist culminating in a cry to end the objectification of women. These are just some of the numerous street interventions we see in a film that paints the city as a site ripe with imaginative transformation. «Congo is a theatre without end,» we’re told – a wry observation on its decades without reliable democratic elections.

The memory of Lumumba

While these street performances are dynamically various, a theme that recurs throughout is commitment to the enduring memory of Patrice Émery Lumumba. The independence leader and Pan-Africanist served as the first Prime Minister of the independent republic in 1960, helping it break free from Belgian dominion until he was toppled by a coup, imprisoned and then executed by firing squad. His writings on justice, dignity and freedom are read out on a street corner, as a poker player deals cards – a reflection on DR Congo as a big casino where foreign powers come to gamble and pillage.

Faire-Part. Directors: Anne Reijniers, Nizar Saleh, Paul Shemisi, Rob Jacobs

The crew make a gigantic papier-mâché gold tooth and take it as an offering to a statue of Lumumba that stands in a park, heralding their arrival by ringing a bell and then reading a speech that recalls the facts of history to Lumumba’s metallic likeness, as passers-by look on with curiosity. Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete had cut up Lumumba’s body with a hacksaw and dissolved it in sulphuric acid, they recall, ripping out two of his golden teeth in the process to keep as a souvenir. A parallel is drawn with the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, in which a band of warriors grow from the teeth of a dragon.

They refuse to let the legacy of colonialism and its distortion of truth go unchallenged.

In this way, colonial indignities and atrocities enacted upon the Congolese people are kept at the forefront of Kinshasa’s collective memory; made part of the fabric of the daily life of the city and transformed into sources of future strength.

The politics of images

Between all these attention-grabbing, eccentric and politically trenchant performances, conversations between the filmmakers and locals weave in reflections on the politics of who gets to make images and how. Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther with its resource-targeted kingdom of Wakanda is praised as a story that has parallels with DR Congo and its pillaged coltan metallic ore, but it’s lamented that the stories and legends of the region are taken, rather than being told and disseminated directly from the source. DR Congo does not place value on its own cinema, we hear, while Belgium, for instance, funded this film. It’s all very self-reflexive – but taking matters into their own hands and shouting out for business as usual to be restructured might just be a good rallying cry for directors too, mightn’t it?

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