3 – 4 min read
How do you get your travel kicks when you’re not travelling?
I’ve written before about travelling and music, but my heart lies somewhere else when I’m seeking adventure on my own doorstep – with cinema!
Documentaries, films based on books, films not based on books – as long as they take me away from where I am at that very moment, the feeling of exploration and understanding is hard to beat. I like nothing more than to peruse the back streets of a village I’d never heard of just 5 minutes before.
And, recently, that was Walemba, a remote village in the Lualaba region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, featuring in French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras’s documentary Makala. The film won the Grand Prix at the Semaine de la Critique at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, deservedly so.
Walemba is home to 28 year old Kabwita Kasongo and his young family. Kabwita wants more for his family and the incredible level of toil he endures to make, transport and sell charcoal (makala means charcoal in Swahili) in the nearest city Kolwezi, is the beginning, middle and end of this understated and touching documentary.
Setting it apart from many documentaries of a similar nature, there’s no narration and no direct interaction with the subject.
At the beginning of the film you’re with him as he hacks a big tree down, heaving all the logs into place and tilling mounds of earth on top before he creates a fire inside the mound, the product of days and days of hard graft.
You’re with him as he loads all the huge bags of charcoal onto a bike and you follow him along his 50km route to Kolwezi, avoiding cars as he inches closer to the city, sleeping outdoors by night. During a short break, disaster happens and his bike is knocked over by a lorry, contents splayed everywhere.
One of the few times Kabwita isn’t directly in your gaze is on the outskirts of sprawling Kolwezi; the camera moves to a distance as he negotiates with bullies chancing on traders to give up money or charcoal in order to pass. But that doesn’t stop you wanting to race in and tell them to sod off.
There are hints at the personal struggle the family faces. Visiting his wife’s family en route, Kabwita brings with him some little shoes for one of his daughters who lives with them, out of necessity. He appears to have arrived deliberately while she’s asleep because if she sees him they’ll both cry.
Sounds as well as sights play their part. With little or no dialogue at the beginning, we hear only the thud thud of the machete as it hits the tree and as Kabwita criss-crosses out of his village, he encounters only the occasional fellow traveller.
But it gradually gets noisier as he wends his way closer to Kolwezi, the frequent dusty drive bys of cars and trucks slowing progress. The city at night is a frenzied kaleidoscope that you want to pull your eyes away from but can’t.
The selling of the charcoal presents its own thankless challenges, and having seen all the hard work undertaken to make it, haggling from the would-be buyers is unwelcome. The film ends after a rapturous, climactic night time church service Kabwita attends, uttering hopeful prayers for a better life out loud, as he only briefly delays his tiring journey back home.
Despite all that hard work, judging by the number of roof panels he cannot yet afford, it isn’t over any time soon, even if for us as viewers, it is.
Kabwita’s journey has been described by Picturehouse as Sisyphean, after King Sisyphus who was doomed for all eternity to roll a huge rock up a mountain, only for it to roll back down again.
I prefer to think of Kabwita’s efforts as being somewhere between Hercules’s labours and Odysseus’s 10 year journey – but far more backbreaking! It’s not fiction we’re dealing with after all, this is one man’s daily struggle for a better future and his story is one we can all learn a lesson from.
Have you seen Makala? If so, what did you think?!