Daniel Nelson



Image by Makala

Making this documentary may have been a labour of love but it surely can't have been inspired by a love of labour. Respect for labour, yes, and for the 28-year-old farmer's sheer determination as he heaves his bicycle, laden like a 20-ton truck, with charcoal bags on the dusty, rutted, often uphill 50 kilometre trek to town and, if he's lucky, to buyers.

Just keeping the bike upright requires muscle-wrenching exertion and there are moments when Kasongo grinds to a halt, he and his bike leaning into each other in a mutually dependent embrace, as he takes breath and summons up the will to resume the gravity-defying push to the top of a slope.

Even when he gets off the paths and hits what passes for a dirt road, he is constantly engulfed – assaulted would be a more accurate word – by the dust storms whipped up by passing lorries and cars, every one of which is an accident to be avoided.

The camera sticks close to this Sisyphean labour (did Kasongo and film-maker Emmanuel Gras agree to a hands-off approach before filing started?), though at one point it pulls back to reveal two other bicycle hauliers. This is a nation of grafters.

There's no commentary, but incidents along the way provide a little context and perspective.

Humanity bursts onto the screen in a sunburst of warmth and smiles and love when Kasongo calls in on his sister, who is looking after his daughter. He cannot linger long, because he has to get to town before other charcoal sellers or the whole endeavour may prove fruitless, but for a few minutes the joy of family and personal contact sweep aside the grind of daily life.

Sadly, lack of humanity is also on show as Kasongo nears his destination and a gang controlling vulnerable road users tells him to pay a fee or turn around. His plea to “Take pity on me, brother” is dismissed with a shrug and a brutally brief response, “Why should I?” He pays the unofficial toll with a sack of charcoal.

In town, horns, whistles and street cries burst onto the soundtrack and the haggling begins. (“Are you selling or hitting on me?” asks an attractive customer during one exchange.). Slowly, the sacks are offloaded. The cash is the driving force behind the journey – though Kasongo faces yet another test of spirit when he is quoted a discouragingly expensive price for the metal sheets he requires to fulfil has plans for a better home. He needs 15 but can afford only one. He also has to buy medicine for his daughter's diarrhoea.

The onerous, disturbing journey ends (before the trek home) with a happy, clappy church service (“By your divine grace, let me earn a living”), which at its conclusion looks like a battlefield, with emotionally-exhausted worshippers on the floor or on their knees. For a Congolese charcoal-maker, life is indeed a battle.

Cinema of reality

How did director Emmanuel Gras get the idea for this mesmerising documentary?

He says he was working in Katanga in the D R Congo, spending a lot of time on the road in and out of Lubumbashi “and I began to see charcoal-makers. I was inspired by this vision of the charcoal makers pushing their bikes.”

Charcoal is a primary source of energy there: farmers – like 28-year-old Kabwita Kasongo in the film – have to clear the land to grow manioc and other crops

“A lot of people make charcoal in the bush, and they have to sell it. So they take it to town," says Gras.

If you think that sounds dull you haven’t seen the film. It captures the enormous physical effort required to push a heavily-loaded bicycle over rough tracks. “I felt audiences will understand the effort, this way of life, the economic importance and human value.”

It’s also allegorical, he admits, “an allegory of the human condition.”

He started talking to charcoal producers in several villagers and Kasongo struck an immediate chord.

A Congolese journalist acted as “fixer”, translating, advising, helping during the filming.

The camera captures not only Kasongo and his most expensive possession – his bike, but conversations with his wife, Lydie, about their plans to expand their home and farm, incidents on the road (including a secretly filmed road block, put up to extort money, and a visit to one of his daughters), his attempts to sell his charcoal in town and his participation in a church service.

The balancing act, Gras explains, is to stick to the basic story while showing some context– aspects of home and village life -  and also to convey the grinding physicality of the journey without boring the viewer. He succeeds in both. I felt the church scene at the end was a little too long but Gras argues that cutting it would have meant that Western audiences would be unable to understand the emotional impact of the service.

Gras insists this and his other films are not about providing information or explanations about the rest of the world (there’s no explanatory commentary) but providing a richer experience, “putting the audience in a place where it can have sensations. It’s about what you feel.

“You can see through the eyes of someone else. It’s cinema of reality, showing a reality that people don’t normally see.’

It’s brilliant.

* 13 March: Clapham Picturehouse, East Dulwich Picturehouse, Greenwich Picturehouse, Hackney Picturehouse, Picturehouse Central, Picturehouse Crouch End, Ritzy Cinema, Stratford Picturehouse

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