The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently marked its 58th independence anniversary—and still awaits the first peaceful transfer of power in its history. It seemed an opportune time for the release of photographer-turned filmmaker Daniel McCabe’s long-awaited documentary This is Congo.
This is Congo is an ambitious project. In a little more than 90 minutes McCabe uses the narratives and individual fates of a young ambitious military commander, an anonymous whistleblower, a mineral dealer and a continuously displaced tailor to draw lessons about Congo’s history, its political economy, and its relationship to regional-and international geopolitics. Despite shortcomings and broad-brush generalizations with regards to the depiction of Congo’s complex history, and little reference to Joseph Kabila’s administration, This is Congo’s unique imagery, and exceptional protagonists leave a lasting impression on its viewers, and unearth important insights about what it means to live in today’s Congo.
The documentary unfolds in the context of the rebel movement M23’s 2012 invasion of Goma, the capital city of North Kivu located at the border to Rwanda, and in close proximity to Uganda. Goma is one of the key locations from which to understand recent Congolese history not only due to its role as a formal and informal mineral trade transit hub (highlighted in the documentary by one Mama Romance, who sells precious stones in Rwanda and Kenya to support her family); but also due to its exposure to the geopolitical ambitions of Congo’s neighbors (especially Rwanda); the country’s ethnic diversity and susceptibility to identitarian grievances; and the sprawl of international aid-agencies, which have made it Congo’s “NGO capital.”
Given the continuous formation, and reformation of insurgencies in the region, one could easily be tempted to conclude that in the Kivus (and some would say Congo as a whole), history runs in circles. As the whistleblower “Colonel Kasongo” (real name withheld)—acting as a narrator of sorts—fittingly comments on the most recent M23 advances: “Everything that is happening in this war has happened before.”
Indeed, similarly to previous foreign-backed rebel insurgencies in the eastern DRC, M23 fighters like their commander Sultani Makenga, participated in previous insurgencies, and were subsequently incorporated into the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) as part of controversial peace accords. Without necessarily having a prospect of victory, insurgencies can be motivated by the prospect of using Kinshasa’s inability to effectively control the territory to force it to the bargaining table to extract more senior positions within the army hierarchy and the local government.
This dynamic interacts with the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which has had profound implications for the regional political economy, as well as Congo’s internal politics. Whereas Rwanda had been intervening in the region directly during the first and second Congo Wars, Kigali has always attempted to mask its own geopolitical, territorial, and resource ambitions by supporting Congolese insurgents said to represent “legitimate political grievances.” As shown repeatedly in This is Congo, the result of this not-so-covert Rwandan backing of insurgencies has led to a dangerous proliferation of anti-Tutsi rhetoric among some Congolese; at one point, protesters even claim Kabila must be a Tutsi. This identitarian framing is particularly toxic due to legacies of intra-regional migration, and its implications for the Congolese Tutsi population, who are subsequently wrongly framed as the enemy. Unfortunately, Rwanda’s role in stirring up instability in the DRC has often been neglected by an international community consumed by Rwanda’s remarkable post-genocide economic miracle.
The most remarkable character in the film is Colonel Mamadou Ndala. Following his promotion to commanding officer in charge of defending the city of Goma against M23, Mamadou, as his supporters refer to him, rose to prominence due to his unwavering patriotism and exceptional, almost “Sankarian,” charisma. McCabe had exclusive access to follow Mamadou as he trained and prepared his fellow soldiers, and accompanied them to the frontlines of the battle against M23. The latter’s love for the country and willingness to sacrifice for the prospect of a better collective future stands in stark contrast to the DRC’s self-enriching political establishment in Kinshasa. One particular scene shows FARDC generals from Kinshasa arriving following a successful battle against M23. Instead of crediting the victory to Colonel Ndala’s leadership, and his fellow soldiers, the generals proceed to outdo each other in how much they can ascribe their success to the “visionary leadership” of the “Commandant Suprême” (aka President Kabila).
For Colonel Ndala the main explanation for the country’s continued instability and lack of inclusive statehood is rooted in a history of unaccountable leadership. Perhaps it is precisely the powerful symbolism of this contrast that he embodies—the prospect of popular patriotic leadership in service of the people—that would seal his tragic fate.
This is Congo will not overwhelm with its complexity, or analytical vigor, but it will encourage viewers to grapple with, and attempt to interpret, the insights and fates of its protagonists. As Mamadou explains in the opening scenes: “To grow up as a child in Congo, according to God’s will, is to grow up in paradise,” but “perhaps because of the will of man, growing up in Congo is to grow up in misery because of these endless, unjust wars imposed on its people.”
Similarly to Mamadou, the unwavering commitment of recently killed activists Rossy Mukendi and Luc Nkulula to fight for a better future, and realize the country’s immense potential, leave their compatriots with an important message: “This is Congo…. But it doesn’t have to be.”