Two European cinematic perspectives on the lives of African peasants

    23 May 2021

    There are two notable films on environmental and social issues in Africa, ‘Thank you for the rain’ and ‘Makala’. Let’s consider each of them separately.

    Makala is a movie at the intersection of the social and the landscape-contemplative topics. An hour and a half of screen time takes us to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If films like ‘Virunga’ are full of action and actually are journalistic investigations on the topic of local wars, Makala is the opposite. This is a leisurely depiction of several weeks in the life of an ordinary Congolese peasant. His profession is a charcoal miner, which is what the rangers in ‘Virunga’ movie fight against.

    ‘Makala’ (Swahili for ‘charcoal’) is a 2017 French documentary directed by Emmanuel Gras. The film was presented at the International Critics’ Week section at the 70th Cannes International Film Festival (2017) and won the Grand Prix of Critics Week. Also the director has got a special mention at the Golden Eye festival; Special Mention in the Grierson Award at the London Film Festival; award for extraordinary documentary at the Bergen International Film Festival.

    Emmanuel Gras is especially attracted by the visual component of cinema (which affected the meditative nature of ‘Makala’): he studied cinematography at the Louis Lumière Higher Normal School in Paris. In his films, Gras portrays contemporary social issues.

    In ‘Makala’ we see a family living in a wild forest area. The main characters are husband and wife (Kabvita and Lydia Kasongo) with their little daughter. Their survival is totally dependent on their garden and the artisanal production of charcoal. The director, who also acts as a cameraman, captures the flow of the Congolese peasant’s daily life. The husband has to go into the forest, cut down a tree of the right size (and not get crushed by it), burn it to charcoal (and not set fire to the entire forest in the process), load the coal into bales, load the bales on a bike, hit the road… The hard work of the young guy is interspersed by his dialogues with his wife about the current prices for building materials. The main purpose of the trip is to visit the city market and to sell coal in order to finish building a flimsy house.

    Then the operator records an incredibly hard journey – fifty kilometers through the wild eastern region of Kolwezi. This seems like an unimaginable everyday feat. The bike is overloaded with a good dozen of bales, it takes a superhuman effort to climb the hill with it. And it would be nice to just walk along the route for tens of kilometers, but obstacles come up one after another. The accidental car knocks down and cracks the bike. Racketeers impudently approach and do not let the pilgrim in without a tribute – a bale of coal. Fatigue, heat, dust, roads ruined by wheels, cut down forest. Both behind and in front you can only see the same poor peasants with overloaded bikes. Slowly and thoughtfully, without giving comments, the director captures hour after hour, day after day of the exhausting journey.

    And here it is, the wealthy city. Trading for every kilogram of coal, settling on a bargain price, the final recalculation of such coveted francs. Attending a Christian prayer service on the way home. At home, wife and children are waiting for cash to buy building materials.

    Behind the scenes there are civil wars, presidents and their opponents, guerrillas, gamekeepers, wild animals and untouched nature, and somewhere beyond the edge of the world lies ‘civilization of Whites’. But you can see only ‘unalienated’ labor wringing out the last drops of sweat, where you get as much as you’ve mined for. A pampered European should, obviously, be impressed by the fact that the protagonist and his family have only one destiny – life based on the principle of ‘got – sold – spent’. The author of the film did not give room for protest or revolutionary discourse, but rather showed sophisticated white viewers a place on Earth where only primitive peasant and proletarian labor exist. And yes, it relies only on strength of will and muscle.

    ***
    ‘Thank you for the Rain’ is a 2017 film by the Norwegian director Julia Dagr, which depicts the life of a peasant from another African country, Kenya. Situated on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, it is opposite to the Congo (on the Atlantic coast).

    In 2015, Julia Dagr received the One World Media award. She was nominated for the Grierson Award and was included in the Forbes list of thirty people under the age of thirty who ‘lead and define the world’s media’. ‘Thank you for the Rain’ is Julia’s first feature film. It is centered around the story of the peasant Kisilu Musya and his ‘battle on the frontines of climate change’. The film has been shown in theaters and festivals in over 20 countries, has won international awards and has been selected for the HotDocs, CHP: DOX and Sheffield festivals. In 2018, it was shown in more than 7 European and 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

    The movie presentsna Makala-like landscape in the Mutomo region of eastern Kenya, plagued by identical social issues. Family, children, and on top of all – climate change.
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    The problems are egregious – the children of the protagonist are sent home from school because he cannot pay for their education. Men flee from villages to cities in search of work. The growing tension is captured on camera by an amateur videographer Kisilu Musya, a Kenyan peasant. Kisilu’s poor quality footage is interspersed with professional sketches from Julia Dagr. All materials had been filmed by both activists from opposite parts of the planet over the course of five years.

    The area where Kisilu lives suffers from natural disasters like droughts and floods. One rainy day, a storm knocks down Kisilu’s house, built from actual sticks. The peasant becomes the most socially active resident of his district, trying to mobilize his neighbors to fight against climate change.
    He chose perhaps the most difficult topic in the world for eco-activists. In order to directly influence greenhouse gas emissions, you need to go to the center of the white civilization, to Paris, to a conference on climate change. And Kisilu does. Julia captures his fiery speech at a meeting of people in suits, broadcasted by the entirety of the world’s media.

    It’s clear that the next ‘battle for sustainable development’ is, if not lost, then significantly slowed down by the global players in this arena. Kisilu returns home and uses the resulting film as an eco-educational tool to change at least his community.

    The film’s website explains that it lobbies for ‘dam construction and irrigation projects’. Kisilu also attended many more conferences as a farmer activist. He represented small farmers from drylands at international events COP21, COP23 and EAT Forum. In August 2017, Kisilu was elected as a speaker at TEDGlobal. As a community coordinator, he helped to create a number of self-help groups in which members collaborate and engage in agroforestry, livestock raising, irrigation and more. Together they seek knowledge on how to adapt and become ‘climate resilient’. Kisilu also organizes meetings between farmers and decision makers in the region to ensure that the needs and concerns of farmers are met.

    Kisilu and his community dream of building and strengthening the farming grassroots movement for ‘climate justice’. The grassroots movement can start in Kenya and spread through East Africa and beyond. In this way, the European author’s film helps to realize the dream of Kenyan peasants – to create climate-resilient communities and work together for justice in our relationship with nature.

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