The DRC: A country only imagined without agency

Can European film producers narrate African pasts without reducing these to just European historical developments?

Promo image from "Dan Snow's History of Congo."

Imagine that a TV director asks you to produce a documentary of European history in 59 minutes. “Impossible,” would probably be your reaction — well, Dan Snow took on this impossible task to show us in about an hour the “history of Congo,” a country as large as Europe. Back in October, BBC2 aired Dan Snow’s 1-hour length History of Congo. The documentary reveals once again how difficult it is to bring a visual narrative about an African region without constantly turning the gaze to Europe.

According to Snow, Congolese history begins when the Portuguese arrived in Congo in the 15th century. The initial scenes are shot in Mwanda, “where people have been fishing for over centuries unaware of the rest of the world.” Apparently without being aware of his own contradiction, the film immediately moves on to the history of colonization and slavery. Places and events are selected according to their significance in world history: Boma was the city where Stanley arrived; Mbandaka is visited because of its place in the rubber production; Katanga is shown because of its copper; Goma ultimately gets some space because of gold mining.

Snow’s Congo is reduced to a space of resources, with significance for far-away economies (Western industrial economy, contemporary emergence of Chinese and Indian economies), as a locale for wars in the northern hemisphere (Congolese soldiers fighting in the two world wars for the allies; its positioning within the Cold War) or involved in conflicts between African countries.

Such a representation of Congo reduces it to a country without any agency, without any history before Western arrival, and without any local pasts, heroes, domestic economy and politics.

Where are the legendary kings of the Lunda, Luba and Kongo Kingdoms? Where is the rumba music, often claimed to be Congo’s most important export product? What about the Congolese soccer players that figure so prominently in Europe, the United Kingdom included? Such figures unsettle the familiar narrative of Africa as a society in need of Europe’s aid; as Africa without its own pride or achievements.

In such narrative, usually much weight is given to the “white man” as a savior of those in need. Snow equally falls into the trap of staging himself as a hero. Each change of locale is accompanied by an indication of the dangerous, horrific or impossible task he is undertaking. Snow apparently dares to go where no one else has gone before. This all might seem innocent. Yet, repeating phrases like “deep in the Congolese jungle”, or indicating that no one (but obviously with the exception of himself) talks about the rape, displacement and fear that governs in the east of the Congo due to rebellious attacks, and visiting the M23 rebel group briefly interviewing its military spokesperson weave an image of Congo as a dark, impenetrable and horrific region.

The question is in how far spectators will actually grasp something from, for example, the complex war episode in the East or the experience of colonization, based on Snow’s rapid visit to the country.

This documentary presses us to ask if it is desirable for European film producers to narrate African pasts without reducing these to European historical developments. Ultimately, the documentary does not offer us “the history of Congo”, but rather “Congo within Western history”.

There is obviously an audience for this. Christopher Hows in The Telegraph rated the documentary 4 out of 5 stars, and acclaims Snow for not showing the horror too overtly. The Guardian picked it as a must see on October 9. Yet, there have also been some critical comments in the UK media. On IMDB.com, a British reviewer shares similar critical remarks as mentioned above, and calls it “a failure of a documentary.” His title “riding the post-colonial guilt train in Africa…” is telling. The NGO International Alerts regrets the “insufficient emphasis on the domestic governance problems.” I totally agree.

How can we move on from this dark story about “the Congo”? Probably this narrative will be told and retold for decades to come. I am not arguing for romanticized narratives; yet, there are so many tales to be told, apart from “the horror” and “the suffering” in Congo, which, ultimately, do not help the Congolese nor the West. All Snow’s documentary does, is victimizing the Congolese once again and feeding Afro-pessimism.

Further Reading

Music is the weapon

During Christmas 1980, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba performed at a concert in Lesotho that deeply challenged and disturbed South Africa’s apartheid regime. The record of that concert is being reissued.

Carceral colonialism

On the United Kingdom’s attempts to finance the construction of large-scale prison facilities in former colonies, to where it wants to deport undocumented migrants.

Fanon’s mission

The works of Frantz Fanon can be read as architectural renderings of rights, futures, and generations toward a “very different Afro-futurism.”

History time

The historical novel is in vogue across the continent, challenging how we conceive of the nation, and how we write its histories.