The history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as it is now called, is no less complicated and messy than that of any other country. But most Westerners have distilled that history into two periods and two individuals: The cruelly exploitative colonialism practiced by King Leopold II of Belgium and, beginning half a century later in 1965, the corrupt 31-year-reign of army officer-turned-dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.
There's a bit more to the story, of course. The Belgian documentary Kongo: 50 Years of Independence of Congo, screening Wednesday, February 15 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of the annual touring African Film Festival, represents an unexpectedly restrained and occasionally inspired attempt to pierce two countries' heart of darkness. Comprised of three artfully constructed, 52-minute chapters, the 2010 television production is unexpectedly imbued with a sense of injustice rather than horror, and of blown opportunities instead of pervasive, persistent tragedy. That approach may be responsible, but it doesn't exactly quicken the viewer's pulse or dispense catharsis.
The first two episodes, The Unbridled Race (directed by Samuel Tilman) and The Great Illusion (Daniel Cattier), evince a tone of dispassion tinged with compassion, irony and polite disgust. Only the audacious "The Failed Giant" (Jean-François Bastin and Isabelle Christiaens), which takes us from 1960 to the present and is narrated by the late Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba -- pointedly commenting on the various events and developments that have occurred since his murder in January, 1961 -- butts heads with history in a way that shakes us into seeing and thinking beyond two-minute nightly news segments.
A few facts: More than 10 million people were taken out of the Congo over a span of three centuries by the Portuguese and sold as slaves (mostly to Brazil). The Congo is 80 times as large as Belgium, which originally insinuated itself on the scene as a benign presence ostensibly with humanitarian aims.
As depicted in Kongo, King Leopold was a skilled, calculating businessman who decided his country needed a colony in Africa to be an influential player on the European continent. In 1885, there were less than 50 Belgians in the Congo. Leopold soon determined the value of the Congo's natural resources, especially rubber in an industrializing world. In short order, paternalistic oversight was supplanted by the use of forced labor to build railroads and mine copper, tin, zinc, diamonds and gold. "The man governed with the most outrageous absolutism an empire which he never saw," wrote Belgian emissary and explorer Charles Lemaire.
Along with heaps of fascinating archival photographs and film footage, Kongo daringly and convincingly employs animation to transform century-old writings into talking-head interviews. What it doesn't do, at least through the first two chapters, is apply a strong and distinctive point of view to basic, widely accepted history.
Now, there's no hint of whitewashing (no pun intended), mind you, or of eliding guilt. But it's on the viewer to pick up the nuances of the evolving power dynamic, from Leopold's inclination toward and affinity for making deals and profits to the various ways that the Belgians repressed or half-heartedly supported Congolese strategies for promoting control of their own country in the middle part of the 20th Century.
Kongo generally views the term "colonialism" as too reductive and simplistic to serve as a catch-all. Belgium exhibited a stunning (though perhaps typical) level of ignorance and self-delusion, reflected in callow King Baudouin's 1960 speech to an audience of Leopoldville elites: "The independence of Congo constitutes the outcome of the work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II, undertaken by him with tenacious courage, and continued with perseverance by Belgium."
On that tone-deaf note, and with little support and preparation, the Republic of Congo was launched. Within days, a civil war was underway. "The Failed Giant," consequently, is the most compelling chapter, propelled by Lumumba's ghostwritten (pun intended) musings and wacky film clips of Mobutu with Richard and Pat Nixon and Muhammad Ali (before the "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman, after Mobutu had renamed the country Zaire).
The story of the Congo is unfinished, and the drive for identity and autonomy remains a work in progress. Kongo has an open ending, consequently, but also a resolution of sorts: The documentary has transformed our view of the Congo from a symbol, or a resource, or as the sleeping giant of Africa. We now see its people like any other, as individuals with yearnings and aspirations.
<pKongo: 50 Years of Independence of Congo screens at 7pm, February 15, 2012 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. The African Film Festival runs through February 29, 2012. For more information, visit more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.