The new documentary by Milo Rau provides a platform for accountability on the battleground of the country of Congo.
As I type this and as you read these words, there is a piece of Congo somewhere nearby both of us. In fact, it is very likely that the device on which you’re reading my words contains a piece of Congo. Coltan, niobium and cassiterite are minerals essential to our 21st century lives because they are found in most electronic devices, and large quantities of them are buried in the Congolese ground.
But this richness is more of a curse than a blessing. For the last 20 years, the Congolese government, international corporations and local militias have turned the country into a battleground in which each of these sides benefited from the chaos, and no one was ever held responsible for it. Milo Rau’s latest political theatre project The Congo Tribunal has changed that, if only symbolically. For the first time in history, rebels, victims of massacres, mine representatives, government and opposition politicians came together in one room and listened to each other.
Rau’s previous political theatre projects tackled past events. For example, Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus was a project based on extensive historical research that reconstructed the Romanian revolution and re-enacted the Ceausescu couple’s trial using actors. The staging can blur the line between reality and fiction and in this way new meanings can be revealed. The Congo Tribunal is much different from his previous work, because the events it examines are ongoing, and they have never been put in the spotlight before. The term political theatre can be misleading in this context, as it implies staging and acting, and therefore a certain degree of manipulation in what happens in front of the camera. But except for the stage-like trial setting, nothing is staged in this film.
«Except for the stage-like trial setting, nothing is staged in this film.»
The court hearings took place in two locations, the first was in Bukavu in Congo, and a month later the second part of the trial happened in Berlin. The film shows the hearings in Bukavu, the ground footage of toxic sites, people’s disrupted lives and troubling images of what remained after the Mutarule massacre in which women and children were killed and the army did not intervene.
The Mutarule massacre is discussed in the trial together with two other similar incidents. These acts happen regularly in the country. Some happen because of ethnic issues, but the violence has mainly become about resources. For the last 20 years, Congo’s economic war has claimed the lives of millions of people. The number is estimated between five and seven million. It is as if half of the population of Belgium were killed and no one blinked an eye.
But the world would blink if something like this happened in Belgium. It just doesn’t react when it happens in Congo, a country that scores at the top of the list of “failed states.” Perhaps the question we should ask is just how much the simple label of “failed state” makes the killings and sufferings easy to ignore, simply because we feel there is nothing else to be expected from such a place?
«For the first time in history, rebels, victims of massacres, mine representatives, government and opposition politicians came together in one room and listened to each other.»
The Weak Made Weaker
“The international community supports strong states to become stronger. When you are weak, your weakness is encouraged,” says a Congolese human rights activist during the trial, and that must be one of the most heartbreaking realisations one can have about his own situation. As it is now, the exploitation of the country’s resources serves the world economy and enriches a handful of Congolese in the government who sell the rights of exploitation to mining multinationals. These companies have the power to dislocate entire villages, to pollute as much as they want without being held accountable. Local artisan mining cooperatives can be simply chased away, its workers turned into slaves for the bigger bosses. In response, local militias are being formed who claim to protect people, but instead instil fear. They turn into powerful players, financially driven and working hand-in-hand with the corrupt government. The circle of abuse is complete.
«The international community supports strong states to become stronger. When you are weak, your weakness is encouraged,” says a Congolese human rights activist during the trial.»
In the end, all these people and their interests are intertwined, made more powerful by poverty while at the same time making poverty more powerful, in a knot so twisted that no one can begin to unravel it. But what if bringing these people face-to-face could be a beginning? And what would happen if the whole world started to listen and to care?