La Belle at the Movies: The Lost Cinemas of Kinshasa (2015)

La Belle at the Movies Poster

Dir: Cecilia Zoppelletto

Cecilia Zoppolletto’s fascinating documentary film upon the growth and decline of cinema-going and film culture within the DRC is one worthy of wider attention. It is simultaneously a general introduction to the DRC motion picture industry and a psycho-geographical study of the impact of film culture upon Kinshasa and its population. Predominately consisting of talking head interviews, interspersed with superb use of archive footage, Zoppolletto’s film has put together a diverse cross-section of representative voices in spite of the possible obstacles that could come with the endorsement of the DRC’s Ministry of Culture. The film’s strength is located in this intricate blending of voices that range from the incumbent Minister of Culture and the Arts, His Excellency Banza Mokalay Nsungu, right down to Charles Wamba, the owner of the CVP Rental Shop, a local Kinshasa business that helps to continue the street culture of outdoor ‘district’ projections.

Another element of the film’s engagement with the DRC’s fledgling film industry is to be found in its interrogation of colonial, neo-colonial and contemporary experiences of cinema and film culture. This is a film that gives voice to African Congolese filmmakers on the right and left of the political divide, as well as Francophone European filmmakers, such as Robert Bodson, who were central to colonial representations of the DRC. What emerges is a complex snapshot of the shifts in DRC politics in the post-WWII period. The likes of Bodson are shown to be doing something more than merely creating stereotyped images of ‘natives’ or ‘noble savages’. In fact, Bodson appears to be arguing that his film Congolese Realities paints a progressive picture of the Congolese population that serves as a corrective to international notions of educational backwardness among the African population of the country, that were dominant during the 1950s. Likewise, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, criticises the inadequacy of colonial and international representations of the DRC, claiming that the dearth in domestic film output from African Congolese filmmakers deprives the world of a truly critical perspective on the DRC. Bakupa-Kanyinda’s belief that film is “the art of telling the world about yourself” demonstrates the ambitions of the DRC’s contemporary filmmakers, but is itself undermined by the propagandist undertones of this filmmaker’s relationship to the Ministry of Culture and the Arts (he works as an adviser to this governmental body). Things are further complicated by the central propagandising role that ‘Mobutuism’ gave film culture, with one of the most important growth periods in DRC cinema being contemporaneous with the dictator’s interest in the political potential of film. Mobutu’s turn away from film as a tool of mass communication is also shown as being directly linked to the decline in DRC cinematic output and the gradual closure of exhibition spaces through the late-1970s and early-1980s. It is also the contemporary taint of Mobutu and his bloody legacy that has seen one of the most important film archives in the DRC fall into general decay, something that Zoppelletto beautifully captures in lingering shots of mouldering manuscripts and unravelling reels of poorly housed film stock.

La Belle At The Movies - CVP clip.jpg
Charles Wamba, the proprietor of the CVP Rental shop in Kinshasa, shows some of the local artwork put together for the release of another popular Italian western import. 

 

Perhaps the most poignant parts of the film are those that incorporate the ghosts and the memories of the cinema spaces themselves. Zoppelletto has structured the documentary around investigations of these exhibition spaces, and the film’s capturing of what remains of them is where the work aesthetically soars. Each of these exhibition spaces comes accompanied by the insights of an owner, a researcher, or a cinema-goer. Among the most memorable is the cinema that was located upon the Avenue du Commerce (or Avenue Charles de Gaulle, as it would have been known during the colonial period). This main street in Kinshasa marked the division between the European and the African parts of the city. Evening curfews drove the African population over the Avenue du Commerce to the outlying suburbs. Yet the cinema that is discussed in the film straddled the avenue and thus was one of the few places where African and European populations would mingle of an evening. Momo Sunguza’s account of the travails of the iconic CineMax filmhouse, that was finally demolished in 2010, shows the great difficulties in trying to keep a cultural centre for film flourishing without government support or anti-piracy legislation. This premiere venue for film in the very centre of Kinshasa was the victim of dwindling audience figures, which Sunguza suggests was in part down to the unlicensed broadcasting of cinematic releases upon national television. The globalised nature of the industry is also constantly hinted at by reference to the competing national cinemas that are imported to DRC (among the most popular being Italian and Chinese). The story of the Drive-In Bellevue cinema is intriguing for precisely these reasons, as it shows how Pakistani influences managed to carve out a niche cinema experience in the suburbs of Kinshasa, replete with freshly baked Samosas. The revelation that many of the cinema houses were actually owned by Greek and Portuguese businessmen also demonstrates the degree to which the DRC’s film industry had a distinctly international profile.

The film’s explorations are rounded out with touches of anecdotal colour. The incomprehensible embrace of the ‘cowboy’ over the oppressed ‘indian’ in the hugely popular Westerns of the 1960s, suggests that much of film’s power is in the stylish image. Honoré Isango Kitoka and Pierre Dikelo were part of the ‘Indubil’ culture that identified strongly with the image of the cowboy. This youth movement was predicated upon adopting the elaborate costume of Western characters, such as the Sheriff or the Outlaw. You also have the central importance of a musical-comedy like La Vie est Belle (1987), which starred the now globally renowned singer Papa Wemba. This film is described within the documentary as a semi-fiction upon Kinshasan life that the local populations took to their hearts. The film then is seen as a cultural artefact that so successfully redefines the city for its population that the distinctions between film and reality begin to dissolve away in the imaginations of the audience. In her own way Zoppelletto has managed to achieve a similar feat, condensing the DRC’s recent history, its film culture and a social history of what film exhibition spaces within Kinshasa meant to the population, into an hour-long documentary-cum-archive that serves as the perfect springboard into the country’s cinematic heritage.

Rating: 8/10

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