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Rediscovering the Cinema Culture of the Congo: An Interview with Cecilia A. Zoppelletto

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Conscious life-activity directly distinguishes man from animal life-activity. It is just because of this that he is a species being.

– Karl Marx, Estranged Labour

For Marx, we humans as a ‘species being’ are defined by our engagement with our environment, which is shaped to meet our needs. Human ingenuity has not only been driven by industry and economics, capitalism and other political models of ideology, but by cultural and creative innovation. Film is perhaps the culmination of the individual art forms combined. As with all art, film has an economic value and therein fits into an industrial model as a created and often at times manufactured product for import and export. And beneath this pragmatic interpretation of film are the undercurrents of an ideological clash. It is one between the artists who value the integrity of film as an art, and the businessmen who are attentive to its economics – an inevitable binary opposition that has forced film-makers such as John Huston to follow a pattern of making a film for money, followed by a film for love. Fundamentally, at the heart of film lies the uneasy balance between the physical sustenance of film versus the integrity of its artistic soul. The point is that if we humans produce to shape the world to meet our needs, then our cultural and creative innovation can be identified as an act of shaping our world in an industrial sense, yet also as providing a means for us to explore our world and our place in it. Film has matured over its relatively short history compared to other art forms into a broad international medium that to many cultures would be perceived as an integral part of any culture. And yet there are quite obviously geographic limitations that would contradict this point of view. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) sits as a prominent example of a country with a cultural filmic vacuum, and is the subject of academic and documentary film-maker Cecilia A. Zoppelletto’s documentary La Belle at the Movies (2015).

Whether this is the end of the story of film in the DRC is as yet uncertain. Zoppelletto’s choice of words: ‘For the moment they have lost cinema’, suggests there is still a flicker of ember. Contemplating Winston Churchill’s words: ‘The end of the beginning’, this period in the story of film in the DRC is potentially only the end of a devastating chapter within an as yet incomplete real-life narrative. ‘I respect the efforts of Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, Zeka Laplaine and all the people who are trying to rebuild the industry,’ explains Zoppelletto.

Balufu is teaching kids through TV because at least with TV they get some content, and they can actually make some money out of being a film-maker. And so through TV he’s teaching them how to make short films, and these short films will hopefully go to international competitions, and he will rebuild an industry.

However, any degree of optimism is currently shrouded in tempered apprehension: ‘But as it is now and as it has been for the last fifteen years, this is gone.’ The question at the heart of La Belle at the Movies is the reason for, if not the death, then the disappearance of the DRC film industry. But of all the stories that Zoppelletto could have chosen to explore, her decision to explore this subject attests to the importance of individual experience. ‘Well, it’s actually very simple,’ she offers.

I am a very curious person and I was in Kinshasa and realized there were no billboards advertising films. I love advertising, billboards and big graphics – I find it fascinating to look around. And when I was told there were no cinemas, then for me it was a big question as to why. The poverty factor didn’t really make sense to me because Bollywood’s main consumers and clients are people who are quite poor, and yet it’s affordable enough for them to see the films and for them to also have a cinema culture. And in Nigeria there is also a strong cinema culture. So poverty didn’t quite cut it as a reason, and I needed to find out why. Every time I was invited to a place where I would meet new people I would ask them: ‘Why don’t you have a cinema and what do you think the reason is?’

The lack of an answer to her questions acted as the catalyst for La Belle at the Movies, although the function of curiosity is susceptible to an oversimplification.

Curiosity could be perceived as the purview of the documentary film-maker as the medium deals in hard facts. Yet narrative fiction in its own way offers an opportunity to explore our world and our place within it for the curious film-maker. ‘For sure, but then you get involved,’ explains Zoppelletto. ‘First there is the curiosity and then you get involved when you meet people.’ If the experience of visiting Kinshasa provoked her curiosity, it was the forging of interpersonal relationships that propelled her into a committed pursuit of the answer to her question.

I could have had a wonderful experience and shot some beautiful images, but then to have that commitment to continue is more than curiosity. You need a real pull and that pull was that I met fascinating people that had a passion for something that doesn’t exist anymore. So even when we were shooting I couldn’t have pulled out.

Congo 02When Zoppelletto expresses this need for a ‘real pull’ it is not spoken out of a desire to create a sense of behind-the-scenes dramatics. ‘Firstly, with how difficult it was to shoot, there was the endurance of it all,’ she recalls.

We were there for a month and we only really got eight days of shooting. Every time we went to a place people were, we only had a certain amount of access to shoot. We would have to get more access, but to get that access people would send us home saying: ‘No, come back tomorrow.’ It was very exhausting trying to prove to people that we were not going to portray them in a bad light – that you were not there to make them look bad in any way, which I hope I haven’t. I’ve just expressed the situation and there are some moments of fun when there is a subtle joke. But I think it’s a joke that we were all aware was happening. But for me the difficultly and challenge was to endure with the heat and the light, which was so strong. It’s blinding and so it’s very difficult to frame shots. It was very tiring physically and mentally, and sometimes you’d just be frustrated.

The challenge of the shoot emphasized that while the absence of cinema is not only having a cultural impact on the DRC, the representation of the DRC in foreign-produced cinema has nurtured a culture of suspicion within the country. The tendency for suspicion to breed suspicion created a situation that would require Zoppelletto to exhibit her rationality in order to deal with the challenges.

When you step back and you think about it you say: Okay, until 1960 there were films being made that didn’t portray these people well – films that portrayed them like savages. So something must have stayed, and I talk with Balufu about this. I’m obviously not Congolese and I would come out with a camera and people would get angry with me. I had to always have a policeman with me and my driver would explain to people that I wasn’t doing anything bad. And in a way I was offended at the beginning, but then I understood and it became a very humbling experience.

The interpersonal dynamic spoken of as being central to the experience can be seen to place an emphasis on the theme of unification. ‘I suppose it’s a sense of longing and nostalgia that fascinates me,’ admits the film-maker.

It was the people that told me about their cinemas, such as Momo Sunguza (former owner of Kinshasa’s Cinemax cinema). He spent so much money trying to revive cinema that he encountered serious financial troubles. One family lost their cinema when a wall came down and they never had the money to repair it. Now they live off scraps, whereas before they were a middle-class family because of cinema. So there are all these facets in which I realized that cinema didn’t just impact and change their life through their love of film, but because film is a job and a lifestyle.

The demise of cinema in the DRC serves as a warning to the importance of cinema for not only a country’s cultural identity, but also as a spoke in the wheel of the economy and lifestyle. The immediate impact is on the film-makers who are without the means of creative expression, stifled by the vacuum that awaits a new film industry to fill this void in the DRC cultural machine. ‘What is very sad to me is how there are extremely talented film-makers making these beautiful films, but they have to show them abroad,’ she reflects.

Film-makers like Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda whose name is in every single book I used to research African cinema. And when we talk about Congolese cinema he’s also in the conversation, as well as Mwezé Ngangura with his film La Vie est belle (1987), which I refer to in the film. And also Zeka Laplaine, the film-maker that takes me around the cinemas that no longer exist. For me it was heartbreaking because their films have been at Sundance, as well as here in the UK, and Zeka is now making films in Macau.

In keeping with the flow of the movement of people and work forces in a globalized world, so too has cinema continued to take advantage of the interest encouraged by globalization in the wider world. . And this is an observation that echoes the thematic undercurrents of La Belle at the Movies, which exhibits the Western (a traditionally American genre, alongside the gangster film) as an internationalized genre. While it originated in America, it has not been confined to this geographical region, having been practised by other film-makers and having inspired multiple cultures including the DRC:

Absolutely, and people appropriate it like Django and Sheriff in the film. It becomes theirs and they live it in a certain way. Sheriff talks about how reality and fiction become hazy for him at a certain point, and it is not because of his age. It’s because that’s the world he wants to live in and inhabit. He says: ‘I don’t know how the sheriff knew there was something happening in the village. He would come running as if they’d phoned him, but the phones didn’t exist at that time. How did he know?’ It’s fantastic because people really felt that this was happening and that it was true. And it’s wonderful if you can suspend your disbelief that much.

Yet there is also the economic movement of film with less of a focus upon cultural collaboration and more in keeping with a trade model of import and export. For Zoppelletto, while there is a healthy exchange between national cinemas, the US and the DRC are counter to one another in this international exchange. ‘It’s hard because first of all you would want a national cinema, which is important,’ she explains.

I feel that everybody except for the Americans are so privileged. They have their own films, which they export everywhere, but unless they are interested they are not really into what they call world film – they don’t watch foreign films much. But we Europeans and Africans are so lucky because we have both. We have our national cinema and Hollywood, and we have everything else. It is such a pity because while there are films made in the DRC, by not having a place to show them they are not able to create an audience for them. And in the end you can say that propagation is with Video Discs that are far cheaper than DVDs.

Any individual society is charged with the responsibility of nurturing the health of its cinema, even in the case of the DRC where that industry and film culture is non-existent. But as Zoppelletto explains:

The audience at the moment is completely shortchanged by the importation of all of these terrible, terrible films. I don’t have anything against Jean-Claude Van Damme and all of those kinds of films, but that’s what the guy on the street is importing and selling because it’s cheap. And that’s how at this moment he’s creating and curating the cinema culture in Kinshasa, and it’s scary. It’s democratic because anyone can bring it in and so it’s your thing. But then a film about immigrants that can educate people – a shocking film about people dying on the way to Europe, which I thought is very topical right now – he’ll say: ‘This film should be shown at the cinema.’ He means in front of a large audience so that we can all be impacted, but he doesn’t even realize that what he’s doing is against what he thinks would be good for everybody to see. But then again it was a city full of contradictions, and at the same time cinema tries to make sense of these contradictions.

Having witnessed the effect of an absence of movie theatres has seemingly confirmed Zoppelletto’s belief in the theatre as a communal venue:

You need a cinema, a place for fathering your film so that it can be appreciated as a moving picture. This is how I feel and it is perhaps how these film-makers feel because they are of a similar generation. They are a little older than me, but that’s how our generations reflect on the importance of seeing a film in a community.

There are tectonic-like shifts being felt as films in the West are having simultaneous theatrical and digital releases. It is an evolution in the distribution of films that threatens the duality of the individual versus the collective experience that underpins cinema. The uniqueness of cinema is that while any individual watches a film through their subjective gaze, they are also part of a communal experience, which cannot be found in other art forms in such a pure form. Speaking with Zoppelletto it is possible to sense her belief in the importance of the communal nature of film, for which the movie theatre is essential.

I was at the cinema this weekend and I watched Raoul Peck’s wonderful film Sometimes in April (2005). I saw there was a Vimeo link I could watch, but I of course instead went to the National Film Theatre 2 at the Southbank to watch it. And it was important that I watched it with people.

She remembers:

We stayed throughout the credits and nobody moved – everybody was in such a state of shock. When you see that kind of film with people it’s something else. It’s a reflective, almost a meditational experience, and it’s almost like when you go to church. It’s beautiful when there are a lot of people there because you have that moment that you share with everybody, and it’s different.

This idea of sharing a film brings to mind an observation shared with me by film-maker and critic Mark Cousins:

You are a citizen of Birmingham; I’m a citizen of Edinburgh. But we are also citizens of the movies, and we speak another language as well as English which is the movie language. To those of us who are movie fans and who love cinema, it is a way of relating to one another. I travel a lot for work, and no matter where I go in the world, I can sit down and there is this commonality because we can talk about Hitchcock, David Lynch or Yasujirô Ozu.

The idea of cinema being a language that connects us is a romantic yet reasoned one, albeit one that is too frequently taken for granted. Zoppelletto’s encounters in La Belle at the Movies speaks directly to the language of movies:

Someone just has to say the title of a film that is in their mind, and if you’ve seen the film then you understand exactly their understanding of things because you can relate to that particular film. You understand the story, the emotion that it has brought and you may even understand the fashion of Django because he’s Django in his mind. You are able to relate to the character, and even when he recites the last things that Django says to the enemy in the film, you understand his point of view. And you understand how he will behave in his life because of the impact that Django has had on him. By understanding the language, with just one word you understand his background.

Listening to the characters discuss their relationship to the American Westerns, La Belle at the Movies touches upon our ever evolving relationship with storytelling and cinema. It speaks directly to how our emotional response to a film is not a static one, but one that matures with age. Zoppelletto makes specific reference to one character discussing ‘a very innocent audienceat the screen, where the line between fiction and reality is blurred’. She continues:

This is beautiful and remains the innocence we want to find every time we watch a film. But then there is the starting point when you have that innocence just because you are innocent. Then you learn and you try to recoup that innocence every time you watch a film. So our relationship changes, but the true nature of a film in which we just want to live the moment doesn’t change. So while we go from being a very innocent to a more sophisticated audience, we long for that innocence.

Yet another important dimension of the filmic experience is education that touches upon the meta-levels of communal collaboration between film-maker and audience. It is one that extrapolates outward from Zoppelletto’s point of understanding the character’s perspective in the film, to cinema’s propensity to offer us an understanding of events that have shaped our world.

Sometimes in April is about the Rwandan genocide, and after the film I came to know about it and read more about it. So it gives you a means to learn, and to not just learn facts and reports, but allows you to understand the emotion that goes behind the news and the facts. And that is so important because it’s the best way to tell a story.

So on the one hand film acts as a means of education through the individual spectator’s interaction with the film, although there is the added dimension of cinema’s meta-education.

For a lot of people, and I am thinking specifically of one guy who owns a tricycle shop, cinema is education. He says: ‘I would stay ignorant if it weren’t for film’, and it’s true. He’s in N’Djili, a pretty nasty part of town, and they have this broken-up fairground that is all rusty. Health and safety would shut it in one minute, but there are kids playing there, and that’s all they’ve got. But when they project films he’s able to see and be inspired to do something else.

This attests to the intricate individual–communal relationship at the very heart of cinema, from the experience of what one sees to what one can learn and be inspired to set out to achieve. And if there are different levels of interaction with a film, equally there are cultural differences in the way in which an audience will engage.

Having been to Nigeria for the first time I was told by one of the interviewees about how big audience participation is in Kinshasa. And I felt that when I was then in the cinema in Lagos. People participate, and there was no way you could watch a film quietly like we do here. It’s wonderful because people talk back to the screen [laughs]. There was a scene where the protagonist had lied and everybody in the audience started shouting: ‘You liar’ [laughs].

This makes an interesting contrast to the symphony of confectionary wrappers combined with mobile phones imitating a laser show that blights our experience in the western movie theatre. It signals the differences in engagement with cinema in different parts of the world, namely a constructive versus a non-constructive engagement. And as Zoppelletto frustratingly remarks of the latter audience: ‘I know how long the director has been thinking about that scene with the editor and you don’t look [laughs].’ On the subject of time invested in a film, there could of course be a case made for film criticism becoming increasingly reactive, not helped by the online democratization of film journalism. Asking Zoppelletto whether she feels any such frustration towards the critical establishment, she offered:

I agree. It is very easy and especially for mainstream cinema where I find that people just say the same thing all over again, but just with different words. And nobody cares to think about it properly or to say something that looks for the real reasons why we are attached to a film; why it becomes important or why we have strong emotions.

The motivated curiosity which set Zoppelletto on her journey to discover an answer to her question remains as of yet unanswered.

To be honest I thought that I was going to find the reason why there are no more cinemas, and I was going to sort of underline it to say: This is it… This is the criminal [laughs]. But I wasn’t able to, and that’s why in a way it feels open and there is no conclusion to the film.

But if as she suggests there is no conclusion, then within the openness of its closing moments it is filled with meaning:

The conclusion is that when you see an art dying or something closing and you just abandon it, then it will disappear if you let piracy, religious groups, politics and every single little thing attack it. There isn’t one culprit, but there will be one little thing at a time and then you will lose an art. And for the moment they have lost cinema and the reason is because of every little thing, and how at that time somebody could have done something, but they didn’t.

If no one has taken action to stop cinema disappearing from the DRC, the same cannot be said for Zoppelletto. No one can say that La Belle at the Movies has failed to instigate a change in its film-maker. Zoppelletto affirms, looking back on the experience, ‘It has definitely changed me.’

The interview was originally published in issue 14.2 of Film International.

Cecilia A. Zoppelletto has over ten years’ experience in TV production, having worked for the TV newtork Antenna Tre Nordest and the London Bureau of RAI, the Italian State broadcaster. Cecilia is currently researching the film archives of the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the PhD research at the University of Westminster. Her directorial debut, the feature documentary La Belle at The Movies (2016) investigates the disappearance of cinemas and the film industry in Kinshasa.

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