The Congolese director talks about bearing witness to a community's fight for justice.
Downstream to Kinshasa opens with the Troupe les zombies de Kisangi – a theatrical performing troupe made up of survivors of the Six-Day War – singing the refrain. It frames the rest of the documentary film, which follows the group as they travel to Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, to demand compensation for their injuries.
The first problem is, the Six-Day War took place two decades ago. In June 2000, the small city of Kisangani became embroiled in what is now called the Second Congo War. Forces from Rwanda and Uganda fought on the streets of the city, killing many of its inhabitants, and leaving many of the others maimed and disabled in various ways, along with a city in ruins. Despite constant contact with officials, the group of survivors are stonewalled at every turn.
As a point of fact, the United Nation's International Court of Justice or ICJ found Uganda guilty of its involvement in the conflict, and awarded up to $10 billion in compensation, a good chunk of it destined for the survivors. However, despite the DRC government's requests for the funds from Uganda, nothing has been paid to date.
With prostheses breaking down, and challenges in leading even ordinary everyday lives, the group decides to make one last bold bid for justice and travel down the Congo River to Kinshasa en masse to confront government officials directly.
Filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi was born in Kisangani, and he was 15 years old when the conflict took place in his city. Dieudo studied medicine for three years before moving into filmmaking.
Photo courtesy of TIFF
"I started to make movies ten years ago. Documentaries seemed to be the easiest way to tell stories."
The film includes snippets of the troupe's theatrical performances along with the documentary footage of their trip down the Congo River to Kinshasa, which took place in 2018.
"At first, I wanted to see what would be the resolution of their quest," he said. As filming progressed, though, his focus shifted away from the question of whether there would be a happy or sad outcome. "It was more on how far they were willing to go in their quest for reparations."
What emerges from the film, overwhelmingly, is the resilience of the people who were left maimed by the war, and then forgotten by their own government. Hamadi speaks of their courage and dignity, and while it wasn't his specific goal, the movie also makes a strong testament for the rights of the disabled. Many of the survivors speak of being rejected even by their own family members as a burden.
"It was not intentionally about disabled people," he says. "That was a product of their situation."
Still, the scenes from the film are strong and unforgettable, including one where Mama Kashinde – a woman left without legs, and only small stumps for arms – leads the group in a song, dancing on a tabletop.
Personalities come through the experience, and in the close quarters of the riverboat, there are arguments and the inevitable complaints about the food. Despite setbacks, which include a collision with another boat, they reach the capital city and begin a campaign of civil disobedience when they can't get a regular audience with government officials.
No matter what their bickering or divisions, music, dance, and theatrical performances bring the group together in common ground, and give them a means of telling their stories.
"[It's] a little naive, in my point of view," Hamadi says of their 20-year old claims for compensation. It was the people themselves who captivated his interest. "[It's about] the people of Congo and their thirst for justice."
Hamadi's filmography includes Examen d'état (2014), a documentary about the school system, which also played at TIFF that year, Kinshasa Makambo (2018), about political activism, and Atalaku (2013) which looked at elections in his country. Downstream to Kinshasa was the first Congolese film in Cannes' Official Selection.
Filmmaking itself isn't easy in central Africa. Along with screening the film, Hamadi participated in a series called TIFF Bell Digital Talks, held over Zoom, and free to both journalists and anyone interested. Specifically, the talk was entitled Black Film Now, and included three other Black filmmakers.
Downstream to Kinshasa - On The Riverboat Photo courtesy of TIFF
TIFF artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey talked about the early days of programming African films in North America, and a highly productive era of filmmaking on the continent that saw luminaries like Ousmane Sembène attend the Toronto festival in 2004. He asked the panellists whether they saw themselves in a continuity of Black/African filmmaking. Hamadi's comments came in stark contrast to those of the other participants – all of whom hailed from North America.
"We have the constant impression that we are alone," he said through a translator. He stated that, not only were there no ties to previous generations, no mentors who had passed on their knowledge and skills, but he saw no ties between contemporary African filmmakers in general.
In practice, Hamadi often works alone, as he did for Downstream to Kinshasa. At first, he planned to work with a regular movie camera, lights and the other usual equipment. He says he found that people on the boat were uncomfortable with the open scrutiny, however, and reluctant to talk. It meant he was forced to come up with an alternative. "On the boat, I filmed mostly with a mobile phone," he says. "They thought I was playing tourist."
The result is intimate and eye opening, and Hamadi leaves each viewer to make their own conclusions. "People are free to feel whatever they like," he says. For Hamadi, his own role was clear. "To bear witness," he says. "To bear witness to the fight."
Downstream to Kinshasa won a special mention in the Festival Amplify Voices Awards category. From the Jury's statement: "A visceral gut punch of a documentary that explores the courage and determination of survivors of war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A harrowing boat journey becomes a visual metaphor of their struggle to be recognized and their resilience in the face of adversity."
Andana Films, the movie's distributor, is currently negotiating other film festival screenings globally, with a planned theatrical release in Europe and hopefully beyond in 2021.