Set in the harsh bushlands of the Congo, Emmanuel Gras’s documentary Makala opens with a young man, Kabwita, walking toward a massive, twisting tree. It appears to be the sole object of beauty in the surrounding area, yet as soon as the camera begins to lovingly trace its long, winding branches in a Malick-esque low-angle shot, the sounds of an axe rhythmically striking the tree’s trunk return us unceremoniously to the humdrum of Kabwita’s inescapably and invariably demanding existence. For the audience, the tree may stand out as the aesthetic pinnacle of this patch of land, but for Kabwita it represents the raw materials for his and his family’s very survival.
From this point on, and aside from one crucial scene, Gras consistently employs tight shots that follow Kabwita’s every repetitious and exhausting move as he chops down the tree, burns it to create charcoal, and delivers the charcoal by foot to the closest town over 50 kilometers away. Loosely forming three separate acts—the first focusing on labor, the second on distribution, and the third on sales—Makala meticulously details how Kabwita goes to nearly superhuman lengths to potentially eke out just enough of a profit to purchase medicine for his child and metal slates to fix his leaky roof.
Kabwita, Sisyphus-like, pushes his beat-up bicycle, loaded with over a half-dozen heavy bags of charcoal, down seemingly endless dirt roads. He struggles to transport his goods up inclines, and is passed by cars that leave him shrouded in clouds of dust. And yet, he shows no sign of resentment or resignation, accepting his toil as the inevitable burden of survival. In the depiction of the growing rift between Kabwita’s immense efforts and his diminishing returns on those endeavors, Gras resists pitying or sentimentalizing the man, or exalting him merely for his resilience in the face of such a harsh, uncaring reality. These increasingly dehumanizing conditions are presented free of commentary, which lends this unforgiving environment the same normalized, mundane quality it has for Kabwita.
Gras has mentioned Gus Van Sant’s Gerry as an inspiration for his film. And while the two films share little in terms of theme, Makala’s unflinching long takes of a body in constant motion are nearly as transfixing as Gerry’s extended, dialogue-free shots of its two protagonists tirelessly trekking through the desert. The duration of these shots emphasizes the vast nature of Kabwita’s undertaking. And as he’s indifferently passed by cars that highlight the snail-like pace at which he’s moving, scammed out of a bag of charcoal by roadside extortionists, and ultimately forced to confront the reality that he will likely not earn enough money to even make his trip worthwhile, the underlying absurdity and futility of his journey becomes achingly apparent.
Upon Kabwita’s arrival at this destination, Gras deftly situates the man’s suffering in a much larger context: as an inescapable by-product of systemic poverty. When forced to haggle with shop owners for necessary goods, and with overly aggressive locals who can’t pay anywhere near the price he requires to make a profit, Kabwita is finally understood to be a mere cog in a vast machine of exploitation. And sensing that there’s no hope of escaping this hardship, he’s drawn to a tent revival, where he intensely prays for guidance. He also prayed before his journey began, and just as those prayers went unanswered, it seems unlikely that they’ll be answered in the immediate future. The only certainty now is the long, fruitless walk back home.