- The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Documentarian’s Gaze
Several decades of media images depicting violence, conflict, and human despair have done little to dispel the “heart of darkness” from contemporary representations of the Congo. While many colonial-era clichés have— at least in the most obvious sense—receded from view, they have been replaced by what one might call their modern counterparts: the discourse of the “failed state” and associated notions of social, political, and economic disorder. Indeed, the historian Theodore Trefon, in the introduction to Reinventing Order in the Congo (Zed Books, 2004), notes how Kinshasa, the country’s capital, “is often portrayed as a forsaken black hole characterized by calamity, chaos, confusion, and a bizarre form of social cannibalism where society is its own prey” (1). For documentary filmmakers willing to negotiate the legacy of their discipline’s close historical association with the “colonial gaze,” the DRC therefore presents a particular kind of representational challenge: that of avoiding stereotypes of violence, despair, and government corruption while at the same time attending to the complexities and nuances of individuals’ stories. [End Page 275]
Whatever the challenges may be, the DRC has nevertheless proven to be a particularly attractive subject to documentary filmmakers over the last decade, with quite a number of (for the most part, internationally produced) films having been released. This is in some sense an encouraging development because of the potential for films that encourage a more nuanced understanding of the Congo, its current situation, and the historical causes of it. But it might also reasonably make one pause, as such documentaries risk becoming further examples of what one interviewee in When Elephants Fight calls “showing images of Congo on the TV that show nothing”—a statement that reminds us of the risks of normalizing images of violence and naturalizing spurious narratives of inevitable decline. It is therefore necessary to be particularly attentive to the ways in which directors deploy the documentary form and the kind of representations of the DRC that they produce. The three documentaries reviewed here exhibit different directorial philosophies in their respective attempts to document various aspects of the Congo. In utilizing features such as voiceover, intertitles, and fly-on-the-wall style filming, each of the films is distinctive for the nature of the gaze that it invites upon its subjects.
When Elephants Fight (2015) exposes the connections between the exploitation of the DRC’s rich mineral reserves by foreign companies and the suffering of the country’s people. The film is associated with Stand With Congo, “a global campaign organizing actions and amplifying human stories from the heart of the Congolese peace movement” (http://standwithcongo.org), and must therefore be understood not only as an attempt to document the ways in which the country’s mineral resources are the key to its current problems, but also as an explicit attempt at raising consciousness about the complicity of European and North American businesses in prolonging violence in the country. The film’s title comes from a Congolese proverb “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers,” the text of which is the first thing that the viewer sees. With foreboding music playing in the background, this white-on-black intertitle transitions to an interview with a Congolese man who states in English: “I say it again. Congo is very rich. We have a lot of minerals, but it has never profited the population. It has caused so many damage, so many sufferings to the Congolese people. We don’t need it. If some people are interested in our minerals, they can come. But the question is, to come...