“This is the sixth war that I am running from with this sewing machine,” announces Hakiza Nyantaba, a tailor, early in This Is Congo. In its first half, Daniel McCabe’s engrossing heartbreaker of a doc surveys life across the Democratic Republic of the Congo early this decade, as government forces battled Rwanda- and Uganda-backed rebel groups for control of the city of Goma, deep in the country’s mineral-rich east. Despite that presumptuously declarative title, McCabe lets his subjects tell their own stories. Nyantaba is one of a quartet of speakers whose words play over vivid footage of everyday moments and extraordinary happenings. Often, the former is the latter and vice versa.
That’s certainly true in the gorgeous, terrifying opening sequence, which finds the routine in horror. McCabe’s handheld camera follows a band of heavily armed soldiers across the green ridges and peaks of the mountainous North Kivu region, cows grazing on lush 40-degree slopes. Soon the guns start firing, then a tank, then a battery of missiles, as families and children hunker down on the road and wait it out.
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McCabe served as cinematographer, and his images here vary from striking to scarifying to magnificent. But his film’s power comes from its voices. The principal interviewees include two civilians, Nyantaba, who is living in the latest of a long line of refugee camps, and businesswoman Mama Romance, a black-market seller of what the film calls “artisanal minerals.” Her navigation of the underground economy, captured here in voice-over and footage of her ferrying contraband gemstones via chartered plane, could by itself shape a fascinating feature, tracing the mining, appraising, smuggling and haggling that the work demands.
Here, we glimpse her process, and the by-comparison comfortable life she’s secured for herself and her child, but This Is Congo devotes much of its quick 93 minutes to more public lives. These include the National Army’s Colonel Mamadou Ndala, a patriot so charismatic that his superiors seem shaken by the love newly liberated Goma citizens display for him. Handsome Ndala is all too happy to redirect their accolades up the chain of command, to the president he quite offhandedly calls “the Supreme Commander, His Excellency, Joseph Kabila.” When we first meet him, Ndala shows off the dozen bullet wounds he’s already taken in his years of service. With a lightness of touch that belies his zeal, he declares, “If we endure all of this, it is for the love of our country. It is for the love of our people. It is for the defense of our territorial integrity.”
It’s hard not to cheer for Ndala, though as he speaks, McCabe shows us the cruel discipline visited on soldiers in the colonel’s “Rapid Reaction Force.” The final recurring interviewee speaks to the qualms you might suffer: the mysterious “Colonel Kasongo,” an anonymous whistleblower — and onetime rebel — now high within the Congolese military. Shown in shadowed profile, Kasongo makes the case for President Kabila’s corruption, laying bare how the current exploitation of Congolese resources and people has grown right out of centuries of cruel colonial precedent. McCabe and his editor, Alyse Ardell Spiegel, sketch out a searing abbreviated history of the country, one of several flourishes distinguishing a film that’s brisk in metabolism but rich in urgent incident.
The second half tracks front-line clashes between Ndala’s battalion and M23 rebels near Goma before the government’s victory in 2012. It’s harrowing footage, raw and intimate; its opposite is the jubilant bustle of the liberated city, of a people ecstatic that, for a while, their normal will be less deadly. And then the final moments are a punch to the gut.