As documentary subjects go, the Congo has long been a country ripe with compelling material. Colonization, civil war, genocide, an ongoing fight for oil and environmental conservation (most recently explored in the Oscar-nominated “Virunga”) have all created the basis for hundreds upon hundreds of harrowing true stories. These stories are captivating and important, yes, but they also operate by depicting a reality where life in the Congo is fraught with the constant threat of violence and destruction.
“Elephant’s Dream” directed by British-Belgian filmmaker Kristof Bilsen, seeks to reconcile this heightened reality with the everyday realities of living and surviving in the Congo. The film alludes to the fog of destruction subtly, but it doesn’t dwell on the physical violence and instability of the Congo’s past. This is demonstrated early on, as we watch postal worker Henriette on her daily bus ride to work in the busy, perpetually congested streets of Kinshasa. As she rides, looking out the window at one of the city’s infamously bad traffic jams, a hip hop song plays in the background, the rapper singing in French: “You suddenly left Kinshasa and your loved-ones/They chased our tribes as they once chased Christians/Now your son is considered a murderer but a genius/Aged 13 he finds peace in his M16.”
But, instead of following that often explored narrative, this documentary follows the lives of three workers in three different areas of the public sector: the Post Office, the Railway Station, and the lone, woefully ill-equipped fire station in Kinshasa. Documenting their daily lives and daily dramas, the film probes the realities of working in a country with crumbling infrastructure and a constant lack of resources.
Perhaps to offset the bleakness Bilsen chooses a dreamy, deeply cinematic style in filming the three subjects, framing them in symmetrical, artfully composed tableaus. Henriette, the postal worker, is introduced peering blankly through the cloudy glass at her work counter, the green in her ankara dress enhanced against the faded, peeling pastel walls of the postal office. Visually, it’s all incredibly beautiful to look at, though at times an overly romanticized approach.
Luckily, whenever the film tends to drift into these waters, its once again anchored by the very subjects it follows. Henriette, railway workers Simon and Nzai, and the stoic firefighter featured on the doc’s evocative poster are, rightfully so, the heartbeat of this film, rather than visual props. Their internal monologues are played constantly throughout the narrative via voice overs, telling stories of their past and voicing frustrations about their present realities – lack of wages, outdated practices, lack of government support.
What’s important to point out, and what ultimately makes this documentary work, is that it isn’t a wholly bleak portrait. It’s aesthetic beauty does much to elevate its subjects, but so does the exploration of solutions to the many problems that the subjects face, solutions that hinge of the three workers on empowering themselves by taking matters into their own hands. In the pantheon of documentaries about the Congo, “Elephant’s Dream” is an imperfect but incredibly necessary addition.
"Elephant’s Dream" will next screen at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival in April. Click here for details.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.