Democratic Republic of Congo: Stuck in Limbo
By Javier Pérez de la Cruz
International coverage of the Democratic Republic of Congo often focuses either on scenes of horror playing out in the eastern parts of the country, or the urban chaos of its capital, Kinshasa. “For me, it was also this whole middle ground of the daily life: a post office worker, a fireman, somebody working at a railway station,” said director Kristof Bilsen in the Q&A that followed the preview screening of Elephant’s Dream at the Frontline Club on Monday 9 February.
In the film, Bilsen poetically portrays the “limbo” in which workers of three State-owned companies slowly languish day after day.
When asked by an audience member what the greatest challenges were that he encountered during filming, the director confessed that it was a frustrating process to accurately depict the “vicious circles” in which many citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo are stuck.
“Some people really get angry because they think that I should show things that are moving forward, that are positive. And I think for me it is very positive (…) the fact that they dare to say how absurd the situation is.”
Bilsen also commented on his desire to break away from traditional structures, and criticised the tendency of numerous other films on similar subjects to treat characters “in a kind of a victimised way.” He added: “They get maybe a quote or two from journalists who present the mic and ask how difficult and painful their situation is, but this shouldn’t take too long and if they are lucky they get their names as a title.”
Bilsen began shooting Elephant’s Dream in 2010, as part of a short film project ahead of his graduation from film school. The director continued to return to Kinshasa over the three years which followed, in order to document the development, or lack thereof, in the lives of the film’s protagonists. This long-running process brought positive consequences not only to the director.
“She [Henriette, one of the film’s key protagonists] has been very, very happy that she went through the film-making process with me, because it really made her question the situation and be more assertive to the bosses,” he explained.
The audience brought up the question of China and its growing influence in the DRC and the rest of Africa, which Bilsen addresses only briefly in the film: “I did it consciously. I did not want to shed too much light on it because it sort of distracts the attention from the characters that we engage with.”
Although he kept the political context of the region in mind during filming, Bilsen was keen that Elephant’s Dream be a personal and poetic piece. He considered a brief shot in which President Joseph Kabila’s face appears on stamps to be the “most political statement of the film,” and even considered removing this from the final edit.
Bilsen remained enthusiastic about returning to Kinshasa in the future, to find other stories and to document the progress of the protagonists of Elephant’s Dream. First, however, he is keen to screen the film in Kinshasa itself: “I dream of the idea of going with a generator and a mini-van to the post office and showing the film there.”
For more information on upcoming screenings, visit the Elephant’s Dream website.