The movie opens with the sound of drums. It closes with the glowing, smiling faces of the impoverished street children of the Congo. And somewhere in between, Kinshasa Kids completely misses its own point. Written and directed by Belgian filmmaker Marc-Henri Wajnberg, it’s a fictional narrative squeezed into the shape of a documentary that focuses on a group of young runaways trying to get by in the slums of Kinshasa.
The concept came to Wajnberg during a visit to the Congo a few years ago when he was struck, as he explained after the film’s recent screening at the New York Film Festival, by how the impoverished people of Kinshasa were “so nice, so beautiful” despite the desperate realities of their lives. He wanted to capture that joy in the face of so much pain, but more importantly, he wanted to give the people of the slums a chance to tell their own story. Out of that desire came Kinshasa Kids, a film directed with stunning realism, but orchestrated, for the most part, entirely through the prism of Wajnberg’s mind.
In some ways, the movie totally subverts expectations. It begins as your customarily heartbreaking tale of the African Problem, of poverty and loss and bureaucratic corruption. But it ends on a feel-good note, shifting to a group of urchins who throw a music concert to pull themselves out of poverty. Wajnberg says he met hundreds of kids to play the gang turned band, and chose the ones he could tell were natural performers (also the ones who “were not afraid of white men”). And for the most part the group of children (among them War Witch star Rachel Mwanza) pull off visceral and poignant performances despite their complete lack of experience.
Kinshasa Kids certainly succeeds on many levels, but the most fascinating aspect of it is the decision to tell a fictional story as if it were real—though the reality of documentary filmmaking is of course always a gray area. Originally conceived of as a traditional documentary, Wajnberg scrapped that approach early on and decided instead to write a script and have the kids act out his careful instructions. But his attempt to tell the “real” story of Kinshasa is then complicated by his own lack of understanding of his subjects or their situation. At one point, a pseudo-actor being harassed by a policeman points to the camera and says: “Look behind you. The white man’s filming you.” It’s a palpable moment, one of the few unscripted scenes in the film; the actor is unwilling or perhaps unable to take any responsibility for the film being made. This breaking of the fourth wall, and many others like it throughout, suggests that despite its efforts, the movie is presenting yet another portrait of Africa through a distinctly Western point of view.
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