Art proves a potentially transcendent means of dealing with hardship in Kinshasa Kids, a docudrama that revolves around a few of the 25,000 children who live on the streets in Kinshasa, Congo. That epidemic is perpetuated by parents who, looking for a scapegoat for their destitution, censure their offspring as “witches” (known as “shegués”) and, after forcing them to undergo humiliating exorcism rituals like the one that opens Marc-Henri Wajnberg’s film, are cast out to scrounge about for themselves.
Wajnberg shoots in a loose, handheld style that somewhat masks his story’s fictional nature, though deception isn’t the aim of that aesthetic as much as capturing a real, immediate sense of the environment in which his characters reside. The Kinshasa on display is a miasma of impoverishment and filth. In the trash-littered streets, kids sleep on cardboard (and on top of each other) at night and during the day hustle for money, be it by operating a shoeshine box or stealing from locals and then, upon being caught by corrupt cops, paying them off to receive a pat on the head as they go on their delinquent way. It’s a portrait that’s bracing in its realism, capturing the fury and resentment directed by adults at their wayward progeny, and at the anguish and fear of youngsters driven to take desperate measures to survive.
Their hope resides in music, which under the guidance of a flamboyant street performer-cum-mentor named Bebson (Bebson Elemba), guides them toward creativity and collaboration. Kinshasa Kids isn’t a traditional musical, but its various song-and-dance sequences—set in tight alleyways that mirror the musicians’ constrained circumstances, or on rooftops that suggest the possibility of a more expansive future—have a vitality that makes up for the fact that, narratively speaking, Wajnberg’s film is scattershot in a way that’s often more vexing than vigorous.
Segueing freely between various protagonists may provide a sociological overview of Kinshasa’s sorry state of affairs, but in terms of moment-to-moment engagement, it frustrates the very empathy sought by the material’s most horrific moments of abuse. Consequently, even at 85 minutes, the proceedings tend to drag, bogged down by repetition and pointless asides, such as the sight of the world transforming into animated squiggle lines as Bebson walks home at night after missing a gig. A final optimistic note reinforces the film’s belief in music as a means of escape, if not from Kinshasa and poverty, then at least from being alone, yet amid the obvious reality already presented, it feels like a sweet but somewhat disingenuous gesture on its director’s part.