Kistof Bilsen’s Elephant’s Dream has only been watched by a few privileged souls since its World Premiere at various European festivals in the Fall 2014. Beyond its slightly surreal and poetic composition and filming, the documentary’s real strength and appeal lie in its search for authenticity and normality in a country where fantasies about the “Heart of Darkness” have been feeding on a carefully managed and internationally constructed discourse of catastrophic state failure (or fragility) and disastrous cycles of structural, direct and lethal violence. Most documentaries – and there are a LOT – dealing with one or the other aspect of Congo’s multifaceted crisis, habitually investigate only this: a deeply disturbing crisis that invariably resulted in immense desolation, shock and humanitarian disaster. Mining exploitation, rape as a weapon of war, female combatants, the Rwandan genocide spillover, nature conservation as well as colonial and post-colonial history of violence stand among the extremely varied topics covered in many informative, heart-sinking and fascinating documentaries and films. Elephant’s Dream is no exception; it deals with structural violence, despair and loneliness. But complementing a wealth of critical knowledge on the Congo, it also exposes what often remains hidden in the shadows of an all-too familiar ‘state failure’ discourse: the everyday state and human dignity.
A lot indeed has been said and written about the Congo’s destroyed public infrastructures and social fabric by humanitarian workers, journalists and academics – and rightly so – yet very few of them (including myself) have been able to strike the right tone, use the right words in depicting and explaining what it’s like to get to know the Congo and its people. I often find myself going to great lengths to use imageries and words in vain attempts to adequately explain the infamous traffic jams in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi’s abandoned and somehow eerie mining labour camps and Goma’s back-killing roads to friends, to strangers, to students.
Kristof Bilsen has successfully managed to do just that. The almost romantic depiction of the daily lives of Henriette the Post Office’s counter clerk, Simon the Train Station’s ‘chef de gare’ and Lieutenant the Fire Fighters Unit’s commandant take the viewer to a strange and surreal tale of three state agents going to work every morning despite the lack of proper equipment and the ever-lasting and hopeful wait on wages. Watching the Lieutenant calmly talk from his chair I could feel and smell the Congo’s humid and burning air, the kind that makes you suffocate at night and relentlessly pursue shade in daylight. Henriette’s near apathy sitting at her booth at the Central Post Office resonates like an all-too familiar experience, reminiscent of my own work and the Congolese’ quotidian struggles. The menacing dark grey skies over the train station loom as a reminder of the strong winds that always announce an imminent thunderstorm. I rejoiced at the view of Kinshasa’s skyline from above, and the familiar buildings and houses in which I lived, grew up and learnt invaluable knowledge from friends and family. The streets and atmosphere I longed so much for as a kid when it became clear we could never return (which I purposely and thankfully did after years of persuasion and work). The film took me back down memory lane and gave me hope for greater eye-opening, ingenuity-friendly research in the near future.
To the outside observers, the atmosphere emanating from the documentary perhaps takes on a sweet and sour aftertaste as they remark the oddly half-confrontational, half-amicable encounters among state agents and their clients, the use of antique, pre-independence equipment in the train station’s main office or the fact that the Fire Fighters Unit continues to operate (sort of) in the burnt down ruins of a once functional building in the heart of Kinshasa’ central business district. This can only resonate with a post-apocalyptic image of the Congo’s dilapidated state filled with unmotivated corrupt officials. To be sure, the Congolese, of all the people I have come to know personally, are by far one of the most obvious victims of immense human suffering, exploitation and abuse both by their own leadership and external powers and Elephant’s Dream perfectly captures the essence of such history of violence.
But in the Congo, those who have been there with an open heart and mind know that not everything is about drama and darkness. The Congolese people’s daily routines are evidently cadenced by struggles with state bureaucrats and security forces but it is also marked by creativity, negotiations, jokes, mutual understanding and consensus. That is what Elephant’s Dream was to me: a fair ode to normality within chaos, order within anarchy, hope within despair. Of course, everyone knows one people, one country cannot possibly be summarized through a single discourse focusing on poverty and misery. There must be some degree of normalcy and joy, even in the Heart of Darkness. Everyone assumes this to be true. So why is it that many accounts on the Congo still adopt either a decidedly gloomy narrative, or choose to discuss complex social issues through dualistic ideas opposing war to peace, right to wrong, fair to unfair, and, with regard to the state, formal to informal, lawful to unlawful, success to failure? In a mere 75 minute-long story of three civil servants in seemingly disaffected public offices, Kristof Bilsen reintroduced the missing ‘and’ in prevalent discourse: formal and informal, lawful and unlawful, misery and hope, order and disorder … a thorny task many analysts have taken years to get a grasp of. The old adage ‘a picture is often worth a thousand words’ never sounded truer.