Enjoy Poverty

How Euro-Americans - directly and indirectly - interact with the Congolese: only as victims.

A still from "Episode 3" of Martens' "Enjoy Poverty" Project.

In his 2001 book, On the Postcolony (published by University of California Press), the Cameroonian academic Achille Mbembe writes: “It is now widely acknowledged that Africa, as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world.” Nowhere is this more evident than in representations of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A country the size of Western Europe with less paved roads than Ireland, the DRC has been painted as the “dark heart” of the “dark continent” since Joseph Conrad’s colonial 1899 novella.  Yet contrary to mainstream perceptions, the countless descriptions of Congo emphasizing its obscurity and poverty against the whiteness and wealth of the West drive home a narrative that is more reflective of its proponents than its sub-Saharan subjects.

Under this monochromatic lens, Congo is seen as a microcosm for Africa in general: it is the “reservoir of atrocities,” and “rapacious, profit-oriented bloodshed,” emblematic of “what many conflicts in Africa have become — circles of violence in the bush, with no end in sight.” This terrible place, the narrative goes, where a young girl can be “regularly tied spread-eagle and gang-raped…sometimes with sticks that [tear] apart her insides and [leave] her dribbling wastes constantly,” persists despite our best efforts to put an end to it. It’s not our fault that “progress-resistant cultural influences,” poor leaders and patrimonial networks stand in the way of development, says the narrative.

Or how an aid worker  describes her supposed altruism:

“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” muses American NGO worker in Congo Lisa Shannon. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”

Helping Congolese is, from the Western liberal perspective, a transformative, quasi-religious experience, one that appeases a conscience troubled by a decadent, mindless culture that rewards politicians campaigning on ignorance and hatred of gays and Arabs. It is much easier to help someone you think you have no connection with than people living in dire conditions just next door—rarely do Bono or Bob Geldof talk about ending poverty in Ireland (especially among the growing African population there).

Although Kristof does talk about America’s myriad problems, rarely does he wax poetic about the endemic racism in upper-class America or how reporting on some of the poorest people in the world has propelled him to a position of wealth and fame. Asserting the other’s desperation is therapeutic. It validates our own position of wealth, and makes us feel better about ourselves within the systems of inequality that we continue to perpetuate. ‘Yeah,’ we can say, ‘I’ve got problems, but theirs are so much worse.’

To that effect, Congo and its neighbors are, and have long been, living laboratories for Western development, from medical technology to resource extraction to security systems and foreign policies—all of which operate without any third party accountability mechanisms. This is why it comes as no surprise to read contemporary articles praising economist and development guru Jeffrey Sachs’ “control villages” in Kenya, which benefit from intensely monitored financial, medical and educational support for a few months before funding for unsustainable, patronizing projects like these dries up.

It is easy to speak of Congo and its people as a backdrop of darkness for which only the West’s white paint can illuminate. But to speak of Congo (and of Africa in general) in more truthfully would require acknowledging our collective stake in the ‘others’’ lives and, more specifically, in their suffering. To properly analyze the current situations in Bukavu and Goma, we would be forced to reflect on Patrice Lumumba’s contention that “friendship is impossible in a relationship of subjection and subordination.” His words can easily describe the basis for interaction between Westerners and Congolese. For the past 500 years and well into the foreseeable future, power relations in the Congo have heavily favored those with lighter skin, and terribly few acknowledge that they are acting in this imperialist, patriarchal power structure.

To comprehensively report on eastern Congo, we would have to acknowledge that the cell phone, video game consoles, DVD players, cameras and printers we use contain coltan, one of the highly profitable minerals responsible in part for the country’s ongoing violence. In effect, in order to cover the conflict in Congo, one is likely to use coltan, cobalt or tin mined in Congo: the plane engine used to travel to Congo is made with coltan and cobalt, the cell phones used to make logistics calls and interviews, cameras used to photograph the conflict and the laptop computers used to type up the reports and send them out all contain coltan, while the batteries used to power the electronics use cobalt, another ‘conflict mineral’. Tin is found in cans to preserve the food journalists and NGO workers and Congolese eat, and used in the manufacturing of glass windows. By reporting on the conflict, one is indirectly contributing to it.

Moreover, almost all journalists in Congo travel with aid groups unaccountable to anyone but themselves, who then give information about the conflict that suits their business strategies. Therefore, producing reports that stray from generic humanitarian analysis is far from easy. It would involve a constant awareness of how our decisions and actions affect those around us and a willingness to oppose the dominant institutionalized practices of Western societies. It would also require journalists traveling in Congo to treat sources like Médecins Sans Frontières as they would any other—investigating their biases and thinking critically about all the direct and indirect effects of NGO operations.

It is with this in mind that I present an interview with Renzo Martens, the Dutch artist and director of “Episode III- Enjoy Poverty.”

In the film, Martens is travels to the DRC to tell the Congolese people that the greatest resource they have is their poverty and they must take control of its means of production. After hundreds of years of slavery and colonization, the inheritors of the West’s brutal history now exploit the Congo through media. At the end of the trip Martens is exasperated by his failure to make a difference in the Congo, and concludes his journey by offering a struggling plantation worker and his malnourished children what he can easily provide: a full meal with meat. Martens knows he can do no more. His mission has failed, and he leaves the DRC to return to a comparatively comfortable life in Europe. Martens’ journey can be seen as a parable for the exploitive relations that characterize virtually all Western activity in the Third World, and especially the DRC. He has gone to the country to lift them out of poverty, made a film that he will earn his living from, and given nothing but a meal in return.

Martens presents a troubled, critical view of how we—directly and indirectly—interact with the Congolese, whether through aid organizations, African governmental structures, factory owners who churn out commodities and goods, and most importantly, through our selves. In his movie, “the entire picture is looking out at a scene for which it itself is the scene” (to quote Michel Foucoult) forcing us to stand on a moral precipice reflective of our own actions, where we must look within ourselves for the answers.

The director’s views are debatable, but few can argue with the idea that our dominant, Western patriarchal society ought to think more about our relationships with people we believe we are helping, for “good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding” (per Albert Camus in ThePlague) Our relationship with Congolese definitely suffers from our lack of understanding of them, but perhaps it is first and foremost the victim of our profound misperceptions of ourselves. This is not a call for the end of all aid or a total damnation of ‘Western media’ (both heavily over-simplified ideas themselves), but an appeal for relationships built on self-awareness, love and respect. We can learn a lot from the young Angolan man in Abderrahmane Sissako’s film, Rostov-Luanda, who simply and eloquently points out that “if I share a moment with somebody, and we laugh together with love and tenderness, then if that person rightly criticizes me, I’ll accept it.” There are definitely ways to help other people, but first we need to acknowledge our role in perpetuating the abhorrent power structure. Then we can shape our actions accordingly through love and respect, which are the true forces of positive change.

Although you’ve stated that your work is primarily a piece of art, it has a strong political message to it. How does Episode III negotiate the relationship between politics and art and what was your goal in making this film?

Yes, it is primarily a piece of art, for sure, and the reason for that is, as you said clearly in your introductory statement, in the film there is a guy who does all these things. He says you are now being exploited through media. And then we see that the guy who does that in the film, Renzo, exploits people through media, too. He just gives people a view and leaves to a relatively comfortable life in Europe. And then you say, and that’s the important part, that this is like a parable for most Western activity in the Third World. So what happens in this film, the piece, Episode III, doesn’t critique by showing something that is bad, it critiques by duplicating what may be bad. On the one hand it gives some critique within the film, oh, media might be bad, it exploits you, take possession of the means of production; on the other hand I, the guy in the film, does exactly the same thing, or maybe not exactly but pretty much exactly the same thing and in the end then just leaves.

So the critique of the film is not so much in the action that the guy Renzo undertakes in the film, the critique of the film is the film as a whole, it’s the duplication, it’s the copy in a way of existing power relationships. And I think, this is on the one hand an artistic strategy that is well rehearsed in many other art pieces over the last century. You know in the old days a painting of a swimming pool would represent a swimming pool, it would represent an outside phenomena. Now, since a long time, a painting of a swimming pool deals with the fact that it is a painting of a swimming pool. It is more a painting of a swimming pool than just a swimming pool. And I think this film works like that. Most documentary films critique, or reveal or show some outside phenomena, like oh this is bad, or this is good, or this is tragic or what have you. In this film, it is not the subject that is tragic, like poverty in Africa, it is the very way that the film deals with the subject that is as tragic. So that’s why it’s a piece of art, because it deals with its own presence, it deals with its own terms and conditions, it’s not a referential piece. Its auto-referential.

So regular media does not deal with its own presence the way your piece does.

Hardly ever, yeah. And it is by dealing with its own presence that it is able to reveal so much more, not only of its own presence and of yet another film made in Congo and who’s benefiting from that film and who’s not, but also, as you said, it forms a parable of Western behavior in the Third World in general. And that’s why, because it is an art piece, it can be political, it reveals so much more of these power relationships, of these discrepancies, than just a film that shows that Western journalists in Africa make money and the poor don’t. Well that’s good, a film like that would be good, but the film takes it a few steps further, it inscribes itself in these much broader discrepancies and these much broader political problems.

When you’re aware of yourself then you have a more nuanced view of what’s going on, is that what you mean?

Yes, more nuanced, but also deeper. When you’re aware of yourself, you only have to study yourself, and you see why all these other things are going wrong, too.

OK. You said in another interview, “I can never be the savior or emancipator because I am defined by the structures and institutions that exploit in the first place,” saying this partly because your film, I guess, was financed by grants from European countries.

Yeah, sure, partially, but also because even without those grants. I made the films with grants, but I started out without grants, with hardly any, with very little money, with like 30,000 Canadian dollars I filmed over a year and a half. Then I got some more money for another year. So it was done with, in terms of what documentary films cost, it was done with very little money. But still, not only am I defined by the grants, I’m also defined by the education I have, by the racism and the feeling of agency that I’ve grown up with, I’m defined by the idea that I think it’s normal that I have a cup of coffee every day and it’s normal that other people don’t drink coffee but work for me anyway. I mean, so the institutions is not just the grants. The institutions is just that I am a representative of a world which allows people to die of hunger on one hand and allows other people to be terribly rich. That’s the institution I talk of.

So do you think it’s possible for someone like yourself to entertain relations with Congolese outside of these roles, outside of the savior or emancipator role?

Yes. It will take a little effort from both sides, but surely, if you cut through some of the uh, crap let’s say—I don’t want to use that word. When you cut through some of the prejudices and expectations, the prejudices and expectations that I, by the way, have made to the subject of the film (by making it you cut through it, I guess), then yes, for sure, there is no reason why a relationship between me and a Congolese person, on a deeply personal level—once we’ve transgressed all these prejudices—why it couldn’t be more truthful, and real, and loving and aesthetic as any other relationship between two people, for sure.

But it’s just that the structures and institutions that exploit that you speak of make it very hard for this to happen?

Yes, they make it very hard for this to happen first of all because, for example, any European or North American working for the United Nations in Congo works amongst people that maybe make 20 dollars per month—maybe their own personnel makes 20 dollars per month, yet they make 10,000 dollars per month. I’m not so good at mathematics, but that is a lot more. So, people feel guilty by it, then they have to come up with other strategies, you have to think you’re very much superior, otherwise there’s not much to account for this terrible difference in income. It is not just the institutions that make it difficult but very much your own attachments to privilege, and to power and to superiority.

So do you think to have more egalitarian relations with Congolese, you would have to basically throw away your privileges as a white male in a Third World country?

Well if your aim is to have a deeply personal relationship with anybody, yes, you have to let go of your privileges, in general, yes. In general.

I’m going to move on to another question. Susan Sontag wrote that “the limit of the photographic world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge. The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be a kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices—a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape.” When you look at pictures of Congo, you get the sense of terrible human suffering. But your film has a critique of this relationship between photographer and subject, as well as the relationship between the viewer of the photograph back at home and the subject. Can you speak a little bit about these relationships?

I think you took this quote from “Regarding the Pain of Others” [it’s actually taken from Susan Sontag’s On Photography] and yeah, I couldn’t agree more. She takes it a little bit further in another quote, I can’t remember the page here. I’ll quote it as I have it in my head: “Empathy as a reaction from the viewer towards the suffering of others as portrayed in film is possibly an inappropriate reaction to that suffering because the empathy allows you to disregard the structural violence that is at the basis of suffering. If you have empathy as a reaction to, for example the crisis in Haiti now, you think, oh these people have a terrible disaster I should help them, it’s a reactionary force. You see suffering you want to help. Of course the people in Haiti have been suffering for ages. It was the poorest country in the western hemisphere well before this earthquake happened and it was invaded a number of times by U.S. forces to secure business interests well before this time. So empathy as a reaction allows you not to see their suffering and your agency to look at that suffering. It allows you to not put it on the same map, as if it belongs to another world.

Does it create a sort of distance between the viewer of that photograph and the subject of that photograph that’s not really so distant?

Well it creates a distance because it just shows you suffering, and then your reaction is either you feel empathetic toward this or maybe you don’t. Maybe you reject the suffering or maybe you reject responsibility. But if you are able to put the suffering and yourself on the same map, then so much other, deeper actions are necessary than just feeling empathetic. Because the suffering in this world, as in Congo, is not a tiny little accident, it’s not an earthquake that all of a sudden happens, it is structural. And that’s exactly what Susan Sontag said, we are indebted, our riches are indebted to this suffering in for example, Congo. And empathy, pity, does away with all this need for structural justice.

It distracts from looking at the real basis for these problems.

Yes, it can offer an initial spark, and that can be good. But in the corporate media and in most art, photography, and museum art, it only offers that initial spark because that’s enough to please the consumer. Nothing more is needed,. And going deeper than that would ask us to cut into our own flesh.

And nobody wants to do that because you won’t make any money off that.

Few people want that, yeah.

So, given the current state of Western media coverage of places like the DRC, how do you see other, major, non-Western media coverage of events there? While there is a lot of big, corporate Western media, there’s also more and more corporate media in other parts of the world like al-Jazeera, Xinhua, Iran’s PressTV, al-Arabiyya. How do you see those?

I have no idea. I tried in the film to make, as I said, a duplicate, a ready-made almost, or an appropriation of the media representations that I can follow on a daily basis and that I grew up with. So this is not al-Jazeera. I’m not saying al-Jazeera is less valid, or maybe it’s far more valid than what I do, it’s very possible, but I didn’t take it as the grounds for my argument. I took as the grounds for my argument the mainstream representations that I grew up with, that I live with, I try to comment on those.

So it’s more of a personal—well, it’s more what you know best.

No, it’s not about personal or not personal. I just try and understand the big common denominator of how these things work. Of course in Congo you will find diplomats, missionaries, journalists who try everything they can, who do cut into their own flesh, let’s put it that way. Who do try everything they can to make a difference on a structural level. These people do exist, but, except for one maybe, they are not in my film. In my film you see the common denominator, you see the rule, not the exception. I try to deal with the rule.

In the movie Bamako, by Abderrahmane Sissako, a Malian court hands out life sentences of community service to the World Bank and the IMF—

Which is funny because that’s what they should have done in the first place, right? Community service.

That’s for their role in implementing negative structural adjustment programs throughout Africa. What would you see as a just response to the relationship of exploitation that has plagued the Congo for hundreds of years?

Well it’s good to refer to the past, as you do, and maybe as I did in the film, it’s very important. But we should not forget that it’s not only the past, it’s right now. I’m in New York right now, if I go to a Whole Foods market, I will be able to—and not only I but hundreds of thousands of people—will buy the chocolate made in the plantations and drink the coffee made in the plantations that figure in this film. So, it’s fun to talk about history and I agree we should, but let it not be a way to not talk about the present first of all. And that’s pretty much it, I don’t know if the World Bank should- I think it’s a very smart sentence because as I said I think it’s what the World Bank is supposedly there for in the first place.

But what you see in this film is that in my view there is not one single actor who is responsible for everything. It’s not like the UN is responsible for everything or the photographers or maybe this plantation owner. The problem is that all of these people take their own privileges too seriously. They attach to them. And I guess many of us do, and as you see in the film, I do too. And I think that’s really the main problem, in on a spiritual level. If you look at it in practical terms, it is very clear that people who deliver services should be paid for it. We supposedly live in a monetary economy, I’m fine with it, but then let’s pay the people that produce goods and services. I don’t see that happening so much. I see that we live in a capitalist world only for the people that have a lot of capital. The people that give other goods and services don’t seem to be getting that much in return. And the guy in the film, the man that I give food in the hut, he explains it very clearly. I tell him, well, chances you are going to make more money any time soon are really very limited. His response to that is, ‘I don’t care about your market in Europe or how high prices should or should not be. A man needs a salary,’ is what he says, or, labor earns a salary. And this is the bottom line to me.

So we’re not even implementing our own rules that we established for ourselves.

Oh, for sure not. For sure we are not. If we were—I don’t know if there’s a minimum wage in Canada? Is it like five dollars an hour or something?

I think it might be eight.

Good, eight dollars an hour. How come our workforce abroad—because these people work for us, they are our employees—how come they don’t even make eight dollars per month?

Because then we would have to raise prices on the goods we sell.

Not so much, not so much, because the biggest part of what we pay for a chocolate bar, for example—the percent of the wages in that chocolate bar, of the wages in for example Congo, is very small. You know most of the people that produce that chocolate bar and bring it in your shop are paid decently. The people that drive the trucks around, the people that operate the cash register, the people that do the advertising campaigns, the people that model, most of them are paid decently I would think. There’s only a few people in the whole production process of that chocolate bar that don’t get paid at all, and those are the people that actually grow the chocolate. So if we would pay them a decent wage too, maybe it would be more expensive, maybe two cents or three cents, it’s not a big deal. But there are some shareholders or corporate bosses who prefer to put those two or three cents in their own pockets.

Thanks, I think that was a good overview. Lastly, what can we expect in the third film Episode II?

Well, it is very hard for me to tell, I am struggling with it. I hope to make a film that brings some light and love and stuff, I would love that, but as I say, I’ve struggled on this film for years. I’m afraid it will take another few years of struggling before I get out this one.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.