“A Working Man is Not a Dancing Bear”
Rachel Gabara (University of Georgia)
Winner of the Grand Prize at the 2017 Cannes Critics’ Week, Emmanuel Gras’ Makala (Charcoal) is one of very few documentaries ever to have been selected for this competition. It is also the rare film shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo to receive wide distribution in Europe and North America. Available on DVD in the United States from Kino Lorber Home Video, Makala can be streamed on Kanopy and, without subtitles, on Amazon Prime Video.
Gras wrote the screenplay for Makala and served as director and cinematographer. The film follows its main character, Kabwita Kasongo, as he chops down a tree and burns the wood into charcoal. His wife Lydie helps him when she can; she also cares for their infant daughter and cooks. Kasongo loads the charcoal in large sacks onto a bicycle, which he then pushes more than fifty kilometers from his home village of Walenda, in the Lualaba region of Katanga Province, to Kolwezi, the nearest city. He sells the charcoal there, sack by sack, hoping to earn enough money to buy sheets of metal to roof a new house for his family. It is an extraordinary and extremely moving experience to witness his ultimately unsuccessful efforts in such detail.
In keeping with the observational mode that for the most part characterizes Makala, the film has no voice-over and provides no contextual information about its characters or locations. It is only by scouring the closing credits that the spectator can learn Kasongo’s name or those of the geographical spaces through which he moves. Reduced to the series of arduous tasks he performs, Kasongo rarely speaks and never describes or analyzes either the work he is doing or the dire economic situation portrayed by the film.
It becomes quickly evident that Gras is fascinated and even mesmerized by Kasongo’s hard work. Makala opens with beautiful, wide landscape shots in a six-minute scene that shows him cutting down a huge tree with an ax. Skewed-angle shots highlight the tree’s branches against the sky, both before and after it has fallen. Kasongo himself is aestheticized, almost sculptural in long shots from behind. While he is taking the charcoal to Kolwezi, Gras tightly frames his bicycle wheel and its shadow, detaching them from their heavy load.
As he abstracted Kasongo, Gras subtracted himself from Makala. He explained in an interview that he used a stabilizer for his camera so that it would not be “expressive,” so that the spectator would not “feel the cameraman behind the camera.” He and his crew stay out of the frame and do not interfere with the action, although it is evident that their shots have been prepared in advance. The camera is set up and waiting for Kasongo to walk out of the door to his house when he leaves for Kolwezi, and Gras is often waiting ahead of him on the road, filming as he carefully and painfully pushes his overloaded bicycle. When a bandit demands either two thousand francs or a bag of charcoal from Kasongo, the camera is farther away, but we still hear their conversation. It is at first difficult to know how to understand the scene. Is Gras allowing his struggling character to be robbed while he films? Is the bandit robbing Kasongo aware that he is being filmed in the act? Or, following a tradition of observational ethnographic filmmaking, have all of the parties involved agreed to perform actions that often occur on the road between Walenda and Kolwezi?
Gras films in Congo with no sense of his place in film history, as if unaware of the parade of Belgian and French documentarists who preceded him in Central Africa. We never see him on screen; he remains comfortably behind the camera without reflexively addressing his role as a white, French-speaking European filming a Congolese man in the DRC. Shot in close-up when his bicycle gets stuck in a rut, Kasongo is desperate not to spill his charcoal. Seemingly alone, he stops, lowers his head as if he cannot continue, then moves on. As Kasongo traverses a field, a Congolese man helps him push his bicycle, but the filmmaker and crew still do not. After a truck knocks over the bicycle, Kasongo asks Congolese passersby to help him right it, and they do. Whether or not Gras and his crew ever helped Kasongo off camera to push his bike, recover the charcoal taken by the bandits, or pick up spilled charcoal, Gras chose not to include images of them doing so in the film. Watching these scenes in Makala reminded me of Martinican poet, playwright, and essayist Aimé Césaire’s famous warning in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land that “A screaming man is not a dancing bear.” As Ben Kenigsberg noted in the New York Times, “The quandaries raised by observational filmmaking are nothing new, and the sticky ethics of ethnographic cinema are at least as old as Robert J. Flaherty (‘Nanook of the North’). But to ponder the colonial implications of a French director exoticizing a Congolese man whose family eats rats for meals is to realize that a movie can be heartwarming and heartless at once.”
Showing Kasongo’s arrival in Kolwezi at night, Gras employs the first quick cuts of Makala; cars pass in the dark, lights flare, and we hear a cacophony of noises but no discernable words. This is Gras’ perception of the city, not Kasongo’s, the view of an outsider who, with no sense of the space, finds it chaotic and hostile. The film’s music, written and performed on cello by Gaspar Claus, is ethereal and dissonant, further distancing the spectator from Kasongo and Congo. When asked about this unconventional musical choice, Gras stated that “upbeat African-inspired music would have created a redundant feeling in relation to the rhythm of his walking. I wanted something else.” It would perhaps be unfair to Gras to understand “redundant” here as a desire to avoid too much Africanness in a film about an African man who makes and sells charcoal in Africa. At a minimum, however, the choice of a soundtrack that is foreign in more ways than one to the people and places he filmed encapsulates Gras’ articulation of his position as a European documentarist working in Africa. And it is the unfortunate reality of global film exhibition that Cannes selects his vision of Congo over that of a contemporary Congolese documentary filmmaker such as Dieudo Hamadi.