'Reclaiming the Congo' Conference: The Congo through Film

Last weekend I attended an amazing conference here in Chicago titled ‘The Congo: Reclaiming its Destiny'. It was a fantastic experience and I learned so much from the knowledgeable panel and audience. The conference came at the perfect time since I had just finished my paper on Western discourse imposing identities on post-colonial Congo, so it was great to hear Congolese talking about their own history and how they want their country to be known. I can't do the conference justice by typing it out, but I hope these next couple posts give some insight into what was discussed.

Synopsis of Poetry Reading and Play Performance
On Friday night there was an event at the Alliance Française of Chicago which consisted of a poetry reading by the wonderful Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula and the enactment of a play by Pierre Mumbere Mujomba. Toussaint – who by the way always is sporting an infectious smile – recited two poems (les deux en Français); one is published and the other was unpublished. It was wonderful to hear an interpretation of the Congo through the mind of a Congolese - especially in such a unique medium such as poetry. I understood his poems for the most part since I speak French. My friends, however, don’t, but they said that even though they could not understand exactly what Toussaint was saying, they were able to get the gist of what he meant through his use of words, tone, and expressions. It was a truly beautiful experience!

After Toussaint’s poetry reading came an excerpt from one of Pierre Mumbere Mujomba plays titled La Dernière Enveloppe. From the brief enactment we got of the play, the plot seems to be about an African elite who prefers European/American culture over her own; who is involved with a gigolo; and who is secretly part of an illegal trading business for Mobutu. The satiric play had the audience cracking up for most of it – I hope to read the rest of the play in the future.

Film and National Consciousness in DRC
After wine and snacks, we headed back in for the panel discussion and lectures on film and music in DRC. The first to present was Dr. Aliko Songolo, whose presentation focused on how current Congolese filmmakers represent Kinshasa as well as films’ representation of life in the diaspora.

According to Songolo, film was forbidden in pre-independence Congo because its strength for liberation movements was known. After independence, leftover film equipment from Lumumba’s-era was used by Mobutu for propaganda.

When asked to think of Africa’s film industry, most can only think of Nollywood – few know that Congo also has a film industry. One of my favorite quotes from Songolo was:
In today’s world, it is imperative for a nation to gain control of its images because if it doesn’t, someone else will.
Unfortunately that is far too true. If a country’s images aren’t controlled by the West, then they are controlled by government – which is why so many African countries have their identities in the hands of everyone but themselves. But never before did I see film as a medium through which a country could create (for lack of a better term) and control its identity.

Songolo also noted that:
Cinema is an excellent way to preserve both historical and cultural memory. It is important for a nation to see itself on screen. Film is the best medium to create national consciousness.
This is so true in the case of DRC. Films made about the Congo’s past are ways to remember/expose the injustices done to DRC by the West - among other things. But in addition to this, cinema is also a way to unite a country as large as DRC. Since the very concept of ‘the Congo’ is made-up, cinema provides a way to build a sense of nationality between Congolese and for them to share and celebrate their cultural commonalities and differences. I never realized it until Dr. Songolo said it, but cinema is partially the reason for the shift in identity within the Congo – it’s one of the many reasons that people now primarily identify Congolese instead of primarily identifying as Luba or Kongo.

Dr. Songolo highlighted four films in his presentation which preserve a historical memory, celebrate contemporary Congolese culture, or portray life in the diaspora. The following videos are excerpts from each film that Songolo mentioned:

Pièce d'Identités
In response to this film, Songolo said that cinema and music go hand-in-hand (Papa Wemba makes an appearance in one scene in this movie). This is an example he gave of Congolese life in the diaspora.

Juju Factory
This is another example Songolo gave of Congolese life in the diaspora.

This is an example that Dr. Songolo gave of cinema preserving historical memory. (I think this film is fantastic by the way)

Viva Riva
This was supposed to be an example of contemporary life in Kinshasa. This is a new film and one I have yet to see - but I'm hoping to get my hands on it soon.


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