I’m not an expert on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I have spent a good deal of time there, especially in the Kivus. And every day that I was there, the things I saw boggled and bent my mind. For years I had wanted to make a lm about the wars that had erupted in the Kivus — since the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 up to the presen t— wars that had left more than ve million Congolese dead. When I nally got my chance, I crossed into Congo from Kamembe, Rwanda, and into the hillside city of Bukavu at the south end of Lake Kivu — I crossed wide-eyed and, truthfully, a bit scared. Even a seasoned lmmaker (I had previously shot in Darfur, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Nigeria) couldn’t help but think about the well-deserved names yolked to Congo: the Rape Capital of the World; the Deadliest War Since World War Two; the Worst Place in the World to be a Woman, etc.
So while I clutched my passport tight, double checked the lock on my hotel door, and looked under the bed more than a few times before I fell asleep that rst night, my silly fears vanished the following morning as I took breakfast on a terrace overlooking the lake. An enormous Congolese man with a booming voice sat nearby manning several mobile phones at once, slipping effortlessly from French to Swahili to English and back as he devoured several omelets and a mango nearly the size of a football. This was Congo. Nor did I realize then that everything I would see from that point forward would be, like the man, larger, louder, stranger and more intense than any life I had ever imagined. My fears would turn to envy and awe, to anger, pity and astonishment; they would reveal themselves in me through raucous laughter and quivering tears. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to nd out that nothing about the Congo would ever make sense, and that’s all I needed to know.
I close my eyes even now and hear squeaks, rattles, and jarring thuds. The vehicle is bouncing over boulders in the dusty road. And this wasn’t a bad road. You had to be careful not to relax too much or your head could slam into the window, knock you out — it’s happened. That’s how bad the good roads are. But I see him now, just like he was, standing alongside the mountain road in the middle of nowhere. He is a motorcycle taxi driver, or a “moto.” He has
on bright purple satin trousers and polished shoes. Over his clean white t-shirt he wears a red vest with a ower in the lapel. He is wearing his helmet. But what really gets me are the gold- rimmed Elvis shades. He leans back against his moto, his arms folded. As we bounce pass in the Land Cruiser, he nods vaguely at me, maybe acknowledging me, the “mizungu” or white. I feel tiny, unimportant. He is cooler than I could ever hope to be. He is Congo.
I remember this guy because of what he emitted. Like the guy at breakfast, he summed up the crazy, the nonsensical, the good and the bad, the vulgar and the beautiful. He symbolized this country where most of the people don’t have access to fresh water, or to power, or health care. Where rape is the order of the day and justice has taken its leave. But he stands there, de antly, in his Elvis shades, because to not, would be giving up.
There were horrors too. One didn’t have to go far. I found myself interviewing victims of massacres and displacements, sitting in tents made of torn plastic tarps pitched on razor sharp lava beds. People were starving, crying, begging, dying. That too, is Congo. But I did sit down with a Congolese colonel who was wearing golf shoes. And there wasn’t a golf course for a thousand miles. My xer was named Jack Bauer. To him, every day was an episode of 24. He would recite scenes between Jack and Chloe and had no front teeth and had seen much death. He named his son after me.
When I left Congo the last time, I cried. For a change, I didn’t have an imminent date of return. Back home, I felt disconnected from the usual crowd in California. I missed the decibel level of the Congolese soul. It’s hard to nd. Meanwhile, I took great joy and pride in releasing my lm, Merci Congo. It was a true labor of love. Screenings, speaking engagements, skype calls, and emails keep me barely connected to that perfect sustenance, that soul, that inner pounding. The lm tries to hold the soul, and while mostly impossible, it’s hard not to feel it a little bit even after watching it for the thousandth time.
But shadows shift, energy displaces, and odd things happen. So it was that I found myself in Jacksonville, Illinois. Kids, students, they and me. They and me. They want to know about Congo. They think they want to help. I take it upon myself to say yes whenever I can as long as they pick up the fare. That too keeps me connected. I never want to lose it. So I go.
It was a play, they said. “About Congo?” I asked, laughing. In the middle of a Midwestern tostada that I would go on to nish. Yes. A play about Congo at Illinois College the day before I screened Merci Congo there. That’s right: in tiny Jacksonville, Illinois, at a small liberal arts college, the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be featured, twice. That doesn’t happen in New York. This was as good and as surprising as golf shoes and Elvis glasses.
As I settled into my seat in the college theatre, I was happy to be watching something other than my lm. I was told that the language of the play, performed almost entirely by IC students (many non-theatre students) under the direction of IC Theatre Department chair, Dr. Nancy Taylor Porter, was gleaned from interviews of local Congolese immigrants who live and work in and around tiny Jacksonville. Tales of living and working in the United States. Re ections of home, of family, of rejection, humiliation, strength and hope.
I hope you would read the play, or see the play. This is much more than a work of art. The students playing the Congolese were all African, but not from Congo. (Remember, there’s fifty-four countries on that big continent!) What I took away from that performance that night was the presence of that big Congolese soul. It came out in the words of the Congolese themselves. The Ghanaian student actors and Nigerian student actors just had to say the words. The Congolese did the rest, many of them watching from the audience. For the first time since I had left Congo some months before, I felt reconnected to that amazing terrible beautiful place.
Award-Winning Filmmaker, Director, Producer