In Swahili, ‘makala’ means ‘charcoal’. Emmanuel Gras’ observational documentary follows Kabwita Kasongo as he journeys fifty kilometres across seemingly endless Congolese dirt tracks to hawk his wears in the town of Kolwezi.
The young entrepreneur begins by felling a tree. Gras’ handheld camera edges so close to his tireless labour we might almost get caught up in his swing. There is sparse dialogue, instead, it is bodies that do the talking. Our journey across Congo rests largely on Kabwita’s shoulders which might trouble some audiences. While this film is beautifully lensed, there is a slight concern over its direction and perhaps ethnographic intent: not everyone in the film disregards the camera lens in the way that Kabwita does.
Charcoal producers often work alone, Kabwita’s labour of love is nicely accompanied by Gaspar Claus’ cello solo which, although incongruous within the Congolese geography, suits film’s appreciation of the beauty and variety of uses of organic material.
There are, however, some uncomfortably protracted shots of Kabwita implausibly and helplessly lifting his consignment of charcoal up steep hills. Somehow, he manages. Have we witnessed a miracle? Could we be in the presence of God?
This style of documentary is more spiritual and more transcendent than just straight realism. The religious overtones body forth in the prayer meeting Kabwita attends. The sermon is on the Book of Job, a book from the Old Testament which, amongst many things, addresses why a benevolent God lets the righteous suffer. Unfortunately, however, this is a message which also seems appropriate to the film’s production.
Without a doubt, Emmanuel Gras has produced something truly captivating. The film’s spiritual overtones are compelling, however, Makala risks alienating some audiences by its silencing and aestheticization of the subjects it depicts. It is still a blissful 96 minutes, nonetheless.
CAST: Kabwita Kasongo, Lydie Kasongo
DIRECTOR: Emmanuel Gras
SYNOPSIS: Trials tribulation dreams and aspirations of a young farmer earning a living making and selling charcoal in Congo.