“Elephant’s Dream” | A Tale of Resilience

Photo Credit: Kritsof Bilsen

Photo Credit: Kristof Bilsen

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.

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Why I am proud my Congolese friends have called me ‘Congolaise’ too.

I remember a professor at the University of Lubumbashi who, after a long conversation on the Congolese ‘state’, shared his thought on Burkina Faso and the end of Blaise Compaoré’s regime. It was November 2014 and the political atmosphere in the African Great Lakes Region had been palpably tense for a few weeks, as if the good old ‘winds of change’ were returning from a long and regrettable break. The events in Burkina Faso, combined with the various presidential elections scheduled between 2015 to 2017 across the region, gave the trip a sense of occurring during the “quiet before the storm”. As Burkinabe former President Compaoré fled his country to Côte d’Ivoire and Morocco, I thought, with a hidden but delightful interior smile, ‘could this happen to Kabila’? The Political Science professor looked at me, burst into a loud laugh and after a short pause said: “I am not exactly sure why Kabila would have to go…. It took him so many years to start building everything he’s done, if he leaves now, who will continue his work? Here in the Congo you know very well political leaders when they get a grip on power, [they] just destroy everything their predecessors have done so they can start anew and leave their own mark on the political landscape”.

I paused too, thinking he might have a point but, then, I replied in asking if it would always be possible in the Congo to bypass, ignore or brutally shut down the people’s wishes? Well, I suppose the past two days have brought me an answer, and thankfully for this world’s sad state of affairs, the answer is a loud no.

It is also, sadly, a bloody and messy no. Despite EUPOL having spent millions in reforming the national police through a complex Security Sector Reform programme in the Congo, it seems that money did not produce the expected respect for ‘due process’ and the ‘rule of law,’ given the PNC’s use of live ammunition against demonstrators (who were not all peaceful, but most certainly unarmed), killing about 40 in the skirmishes in Goma and Kinshasa. The Mayor of Goma himself, whom I met and seemed deceptively modern and open-minded, called the demonstrators ‘criminals’ and let his police clash with rioting students. The government swiftly ordered a communication ‘black out’ and ordered all companies to block Internet access and SMS signal, most likely in an attempt to prevent the documentation of police violence and impede demonstrations whose organizers have used social  networks to gather support under the #Telema (‘raise up’ in Lingala) rallying cry.

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Through a mix of personal memories and information from the media, I recall the widespread looting of 1991 and 1993 when the cities of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Kisangani among others, suddenly turned into deserted, desolated, ghostly places where revolt gave way to fear and ultimately left Mobutu in power. I think about the so hopeful Congolese people who gathered and waited patiently for the 1991 Conference Nationale Souveraine to deliver on its promises of a multi-party system and democracy, only to see, again, a triumphant Mobutu, using the opportunity to his own private advantage. I remembered the fear of the Spring of 1997 as the AFDL walked towards Kinshasa in a military move no one could believe was really happening. I remember the assassinations, the swirling inflation, the fear, and the end of an era as all the 30 year-old green symbols of Zaïre and its ‘Leopard’ vanished in the blink of an eye. I remember a Tutsi friend of my parents arriving at our home in Kinshasa, traumatized from the Rwandan genocide, and I still feel the creepy echo of war along my spine. I remember the numerous failed attempts at bringing peace and quiet in the Kivus, Ituri, and Katanga. We went from one monarch to another, from one bloodshed to another, from scandal to scandal, from deaths to more deaths. As Jason Stearns pointed out, this time it’s different: the students have taken the lead, Kabila’s PPRD is internally weakened and the Senate stepped up in amending the controversial article 8.

Oh! How many times have I heard how the Congolese don’t rise up and shine because they are too scared, have I endlessly witnessed cynical people who claim democracy isn’t for Africans, and criticized the Congo’s apathetic people and their love for nothing more than beer and lutuku. Apparently, despite bullets and brutality, they also would love to see change happen. No one can predict if this new upsurge of pro-change movement will last long enough for the country to get a chance to witness the beginning of genuine democratic turnaround and to recover from a century and a half of exploitation and war, but this past week will be remembered as those days the state listened to the people and today I am particularly proud. I am proud to be a Congolaise too.

Demolition man

Growing cities in post-colonial Africa are often said to display highly disorganized urbanization schemes. As hundred of thousands newcomers flock to important commercial urban centres such as Lubumbashi and Kinshasa in the DRC, urban planning is nonetheless shrinking dramatically within wider municipal and provincial political agendas. While all levels of the Congolese state host various administrative departments dedicated to legally controlling and implementing urban planning, housing and land and property arrangements, very little ‘official’ public work seems to be carried out. At the same time, the state has recently sought to reinforce its grip over an expanding urban population through other means. This occurs through the sale of massive chunks of public land and demolition policies, rather than prioritizing the production of coherent urban planning schemes. Indeed, private companies and wealthy politico-businessmen buy out properties at the cities’ outskirt and sometimes right within existing urbanised neighbourhoods. While visiting Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, communes after communes, and talking with locals, it becomes quite clear that the future urban organisation of African cities will be quite a tough one.

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