Ellen Lande
Ellen is a film director and freelance film critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Email: ellen@landefilm.com
Published date: March 5, 2018

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.»

The film does not make use of words to comment on its position. The scenes simply speak for themselves. The family´s only source of protein is fried rats, which are often on the menu; deforestation and loss of undergrowth have led to rats being the only wildlife remaining in the area. Congo´s brutally violent contemporary history has become known through the Moland/French case, but how forest and agricultural opportunities have been ravaged is new to us.

Kabwita is just one of many. The rugged, inhospitable landscape he travels through during his three-day trip on foot depicts the conflict between the ongoing, fatal deforestation and the need for a livelihood. There is smoke coming from burning wood all around. How does a man like him survive, one who has to base his existence on a livelihood that is about to disappear? What prospects does he have? The questions I have during the movie are many. The director recreates the scene that triggered the idea for the film: Kabwita is the last one in a group of three, all pushing colourful homemade garbage bag installations on top of fragile bicycle tyres. Hidden in these bags is their precious load–the coal that it has taken weeks to burn in temporary peat ovens.

An Endless Circle of Struggle

Suddenly the unthinkable happens. Kabwita´s dream is being hit by a truck and ends up in a ditch. The bicycle and the bags are smashed. Alone and without and tools, how is he supposed to manage to save the load that has been spread all over and continue his journey towards a better life? His despair hits us in our stomachs.

Makala (“Coal”) Director: Emmanuel Gras

Miraculously, three passers-by stop to help him. Kabwita organizes them as steadily as an experienced construction manager. He is able to continue, but the experience has changed him. The physical fatigue has caught up with him now. Is it the fact that his dream is out of reach: the dream of earning enough money to change the roof and then expand his one-room house? The house he was going to plant fruit trees all around–mango, orange, apple and even a palm tree.

«It is the human ability to work extremely hard and to imagine a better life that gives the film it´s dynamic feel.»

It is the human ability to work extremely hard and to imagine a better life that gives the movie its dynamic feel. At the same time, the film places a small man´s dream up against the impoverishment and collapse of the ecosystem. How does planting a few trees help when coal is the basis of livelihood for so many in the region?

The bicycle wheel rolls through dust changing from yellow to white. To rest our eyes on something else other than the exhausting challenges reflected in Kabwita´s face is a relief.


He walks steadily, in the same rhythmic and insisting manner he showed when he cut down the giant tree. Now, Kabwita Kasongo´s own dignity is going to hit the ground. Nearby the city, the local mafia is waiting to enforce their “toll”. Kabwita begs and prays for his sick child, he is broke. The mafia does not care and requires the money. A bag of coal is much easier to carry for the one who steals it.

Reaching the city, it takes days to get a good enough price for the coal–the medicine he has to buy for his youngest digs into his earnings. Kabwita and his load are exposed, half asleep against a wall. I experience a feeling of relief when he seeks refuge in a provisional church, although the prayer he says there seems to be constructed. Has the director arranged it all?











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