Sunday, June 8, 2008

Coming up on July 6th: Pièces d'identités (Pieces of Identity)

A brief history of the Congo and the film courtesy of California Newsreel:

When the European powers carved up the African continent in the late 19th century, the Belgian King, Leopold I, and other Belgian notables claimed the vast, mineral rich lands of the Congo River basin as their own. Even by the abysmal standards of colonial rule, the Belgian regime was unusually callous and brutal; thousands of Congolese died working under slave-like conditions in Belgian mines and plantations.

Belgium abruptly granted independence to Congo in 1960 and Patrice Lumumba was elected its first president. He was felt to be too independent or "pro-Soviet" for Belgium or U.S interests. After just a few months, Lumumba was deposed in a coup led by Joseph Mobutu and murdered, possibly with CIA involvement, in January 1961. For the next 30 years, Mobutu, a steadfast ally of the U.S., pillaged the country which he renamed Zaire. During his rule, he accumulated several billion dollars in personal wealth, a sum equal perhaps not coincidentally to the entire national debt of Zaire.

When Mobutu's health deteriorated in 1996, the country erupted into a brutal civil war pitting central government forces against a number of guerrilla groups. The situation threatened to flare up into a regional conflict since each group received support from a different neighboring African state. Eventually rebel commander, Laurent Kabila, triumphed and installed himself as the new president. He has proven undemocratic and unpopular himself so civil war continues to smolder throughout the country. As an example, the African portions of this film had to be shot in Cameroon because it was too dangerous to take a crew into Congo.

Filmmaker Mweze Ngangura made this film to speak to those whose families, migrated from Africa to Europe and now find themselves with questions about their origins. He hoped that this film would help them with these concerns.

About the Film:

Mani Kongo (Essomba), the venerable king of the Bakongo (in Congo), sets out alone on a quest for his long-lost daughter, Mwana (Mesa), whom he sent to Belgium to study medicine many years before. As soon as he arrives he finds his identity challenged by the attitudes of the Westerners, both black and white, with whom he comes into conflict. At the airport the custom officials want to charge him duty on his royal “fetishes,” mistaking them for objets d’art. In Brussels he is robbed of his money and papers, then evicted from a church-run hostel. Circumstances finally force him to pawn his royal regalia, symbolically stripping him of his identity. In this modern fairy tale, the uprooted king is an Everyman forced to endure the crime, corruption, decadence and racism of European life in order to save his daughter from a potentially soul-destroying rootlessness. In the end, everything works out for the best. Kongo returns home with his daughter and his new-found friend (and love-interest of Mwana) the mulatto, Chaka-Jo (Daulne).

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