Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Interview with Mweze Ngangura

I’ll tell you all about my life, but my life is not a movie....

Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi is the first African film that had an impact on me. It showed me that the realities of my daily life in an African city were movie material. Until then, I had imagined that movies took place somewhere else, with people who did not look like me, living realities which had nothing to do with me. With Mandabi, I could relate to what was depicted. That was a first motivation for me to become a filmmaker. But in everything there is always a mix of chance and will. Two of the Jesuit fathers teaching in my school were interested in the cinema. Father Beyens organized many screenings for us, and Father De Wilde had us write essays about the films. I became his assistant projectionist and my schoolmates started to call me the “filmmaker.”

Another stroke of luck was that I had applied for a scholarship to go to Europe, and in my city of Bukavu I was the only one selected. I was required to study something which didn’t yet exist in my country. So, I applied for the study of cinema, not knowing anything about the differences between a filmmaker, a camera operator, a director
of photography, an editor, etc. My friends said that I had enrolled in a hippie school, but I never regretted my decision.

The beginnings of cinema in the Congo were driven by the missionaries. Apart from the Sembene classic you mentioned, were there other films during that period that motivated you even more to take up cinema and maybe correct these images?

Apart from Ghana which had an official film unit, Congo — it was “Belgian” Congo at the time was one of the rare countries with a cinema for an “indigenous” audience. They showed us how to acquire the traits of European civilization. But they [the missionaries] gave people the opportunity to see movies made for them instead of only Western and Hindi movies. Screenings were in the open. A sheet was spread in the main square, and when dusk set in, we gathered for these silent films. A white host explained in a microphone what was happening on screen. I have good memories of that.

Before you left Congo to study in 1970, were there any local filmmakers that you
worked with?

No, the profession did not exist as such. At the time of independence in 1960, when the missionaries left, this cinema automatically stopped.

Describe how your work has evolved from the documentaries to the first fiction
film and then the latest film. What were some of your influences?

I consider myself a “traveler.” I was born in a city but returned to my grandparents’ village with great joy every year. Then, in Europe, I tried to explore the society, not as an exotic African but as a human being discovering other human beings, who were at the same time strange and interesting — this is something that transpires in my films.

I returned from Europe to Kinshasa and discovered a big African city. I think of myself
as a filmmaker of the Diaspora. I feel at ease everywhere I go. I have known both colonial and post-colonial Africa. I live in Brussels, but I am still one of the closest advisers of our traditional Chief in the village.

I don't like to think in intellectual terms; I am very observant but I don't spend time boring people with my observations. I am very interested in politics but do not enjoy long political discussions. I keep informed about what is going on, but I have no specific topic of interest. When I started filming, I was more interested in fiction. But circumstances compelled me to make documentaries. I had just shifted from the status of student to that of an assistant professor in the National Institute for the Arts (INA) at the University of Kinshasa. I came from Bukavu, which is in a different time zone, east of the capital, and I was fascinated by Kinshasa. So, I started to make a documentary about the city. The idea came after I made a short film about
Chéri Samba the painter, who has a sharp vision of the city. Kin Kiesse was my own
subjective perception of the city.

So, the documentary that you did on Chéri-Samba influenced Kin Kiesse.

Yes indeed, from Chéri-Samba to Kin Kiesse there is almost no difference. Actually, it is Chéri-Samba which convinced the French Ministry of Co-operation and the TV channel France 2, who co-produced the film, and also Congolese Television that I could make a film on Kinshasa.

At the time, they wanted to create a series on African cities seen through the eyes of African filmmakers. But in the end only Kin Kiesse was made. Let me follow that thread from Chéri-Samba to Kin Kiesse. Then you come to La vie est belle which is also about the city. Yes. The documentary is the best school of fiction that exists. A documentary gives the opportunity to look at things, to understand reality, to make reality accessible, tangible, and, at the same
time, your personal view of it. So, Kin Kiesse and Chéri-Samba were like a rehearsal before La vie est belle.

As you will see, when I made Pièces d’identités, there were also documentaries that had laid the groundwork for it. Changa-Changa was about the cultural mixed of music in Brussels. Then Le roi, la vache et le bananier [The King, the Cow, and the Banana Tree] reflected on our traditional royal system in the modern world. Pièces d'Identités further developed these themes. Then, Lettre à Makoura: les dernier Bruxellois [Letter to Makoura: The Last Inhabitants of Brussels] which is a video letter to a cousin who has never left the village.

In Pièces d’identités you observe Europe’s many levels. You portray the diversity of the white community in Brussels. When Mani Kongo gets away from the hotel where he first lodged, he goes to what could be considered a lower-class neighborhood and really becomes part of the community there. You showed the nature of that community, the humanity of those individuals.

One of the best compliments I received was from an African in Milan who said that my film was like psychotherapy for Africans who live in Europe. Perhaps I made the film to cure myself. I wanted to say, OEI am a normal human being. Stop looking at me like an exotic object.’ Some of my Belgian friends didn’t like the film. Although the film had already been widely screened to international acclaim, the Commission refused financing; they said it was not good. I had already written the screenplay for Pièces d’identités before I made all these documentaries. I made them as I was looking for financing. But in the end they were the opportunity to thoroughly rehearse before I made Pièces d'identités.

You don’t believe in a political cinema, yet your films bring out many political issues.
Would you characterize La vie est belle as a political film?

In a way. Kin Kiesse was filmed under a regime where every public expression had to be official. Yet in my film you do not see the governor or hear important party members or any political cant. A young painter, not very well known, did the commentary. Everything gave the impression that I was doing a counter-revolutionary film against the party and the state. La vie est belle, being a continuation of Kin Kiesse had a corrosive edge. I portrayed a marginal social milieu in Kinshasa, the world of shoeshine boys and boys who fend for themselves. It was not the official image. It was political as it showed daily realities. It is true that the film doesn’t give a clear idea of the repressive, anti-democratic regime under which we were living, but I went quite far, given the circumstances. Remember that it was forbidden to even walk around with a camera and take pictures. And I was filming an overcrowded bus that was about to break down.

The film does not make any political statement, but it talks about politics in ways that people might be able to decode.

The film is meant for people who might not have the opportunity to see it, as it could be censored. Political language that is too close to caricature has no credibility. And if the caricature is too strong, it lacks sensibility, and people do not feel like seeing it. You do not talk about famine for an hour and a half to some one who starves. You do not talk to someone who suffers under dictatorship about his problems. Politics is only a part of our desire to express our vision. Beyond politics, there is philosophy, love, humor.

There are many elements which will appeal to people. If you reduce it to one dimension, people fail to feel close to you, because you present a distorted world.
Cinema is entertainment, and you don’t want to discourage people from going to
the movies or encourage them to turn to Hong Kong films or Westerns — a filmmaker is not a journalist. There are elements of the oral tradition that influence your style, your structure, the language that you use in your films. And as Congo is a center of African music and Papa Wemba is one of these recognizable, familiar representatives of that kind of music, what is the importance of those elements— music, oral tradition, and musicians like Papa Wemba?

Papa Wemba is from the city, but he respects tradition greatly. He said to me: ‘If I was not a musician of contemporary music and if I had lived in my village, I would be a griot.’ And truly his voice sometime is reminiscent of a “griot.” Oral tradition is the most typical expression of Africa. Writing was introduced later. It was a great trauma, this so-called Gutenberg era. Even today, sixty or seventy percent of the population lives in villages and still relies on the oral tradition. Perhaps technology, like digital TV or electronic calculators, will bring us back to a world that is very close to the oral tradition. You find mothers who do commerce and do not know how to write but know how to use a calculator. You find people who cannot write a novel but can use a digital camera. Digital technology is a liberating force....

Mweze Ngangura was born in Zaire in 1950 and studied at the Institut des Arts et Diffusion (IAD) in Brussels. From 1976 to 1985, he taught at the Institut Nationale des Arts (INA) and the Studio Ecole de la Voix du Zaire in Kinshasa. His short film Kin-Kiesse was selected as the best documentary at FESPACO in 1983, and Identity Cards won the Grand prize at FESPACO in 1999. His first feature film, Life is Rosy, featuring music star Papa Wemba, was one of the all-time popular hits of African cinema.

Mbye Cham is Associate Professor of African Studies at Howard University. He has published numerous articles on African film and co-edited Black Frames: Critical Perspectives On Black Independent Cinema (MIT Press, 1988), Ex-Iles: Essays On Caribbean Cinema (Africa World Press, 1992), African Experiences of Cinema (BFI, 1996).

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