Ellen Lande
Ellen is a film director and freelance film critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

In this portrait of a coal worker in Congo, hopelessness meets an indomitable will.

Makala (“Coal”)

Emmanuel Gras

France 2017 96 minutes

A surreal vehicle can be spotted, lit up by a passing car; a moving mountain consisting of coal bags, water cans, bits of plastic, extra shoes and more piled onto an old bike. This is all being pushed forward by a skinny, tall man, up a rugged and unpredictable hill. He seems unaware of the dust cloud that swirls up around him as he walks. The simultaneously ugly and beautiful weight not only represents all of his dreams but also basic necessities. The human ant has its feet well planted into tall rubber boots, using his body as a diagonal barbell. The road to the city is long and dangerous; he is alone and vulnerable in the pitch-black darkness. Heavy trucks drive by, dangerously close.

A Filmic Masterpiece

The film silently creeps under my skin. Simply and quietly, it follows Kabwita Kasongo close up. The 28-year-old father is one of many poor people in Congo who continue the old tradition of charcoal production for sale in the cities. The film takes its time, and it dares to be simple in its expression. Fascinated, I experience an unpredictable calmness and warmth while I am able to join our main character in his demanding everyday life.


Kabwita goes out into the early grey morning light carrying two axes on his back and stops at a giant, ancient tree. He chops into it deeply with confidence. The cut is like a small splinter in relation to the vast perimeter of the tree. It surprises me when he pushes the massive tree over with a light movement; what just reigned high above all vegetation is suddenly hidden by small bushes and tall grass.

Taking the dimension of the tree and its majestic height into account, the fact that chopping the tree is a single person´s job is not obvious–the film is a documentary, but it consciously uses the methods of a fiction film. The camera angles are particularly thought-out and often emphasize an action in a more symbolic, existential way. Thus, the film has both an extraordinary cinematic flow as well as picturesque images that are left in our memory.

«The film is a documentary, although it consciously makes use of the methods of a fiction film.»

The director, Emmanuel Gras, worked recording a completely different movie as a film photographer in Congo. He then became fascinated seeing the coal workers pushing their insanely heavy coal-colossus uphill using only fragile bicycles. The power of Makala lies in the Sisyphean aspect of the coal worker´s struggle for existence. The film was the first documentary to participate at Cannes´ Critics Week and won the Grand Prix.

Casting a Hero

The film makes me think of the German pre-war artist Käthe Kollwitz´s expressive charcoal drawings and sculptures depicting hungry, exhausted workers. Kabwita´s pure face has an expressive dynamism and an immense emotional registry that we usually only spot in really good Bollywood or Hollywood stars. Kabwita´s body language is equally expressive.

Käthe Kollwitz

The director initially had another main character in mind. However, Gras made the right decision when he switched to Kabwita, who shows us his many feelings and captivates us through his irrepressible will, despite living such a minimal existence. His sweaty, smoky, week-long struggle moves us. While branches and tree trunks are being transformed into coal, we get to know the person and what makes his hard struggle worth it. In brief parts, we get to see the warmth, humour and intimacy Kabwita shares with his hard-working, humorous wife Lydie and their loving toddlers.

«The family´s only source of protein is fried rats, which are often on the menu.»

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