Enjoy Poverty is a deeply uncomfortable film. The movie follows the artist Renzo Martens as he travels through the Congo with a hand-held camera, seemingly focusing on issues of poverty. As I watched the documentary, there were many moments where I could feel the audience squirming around me. Some members of the audience shouted at the screen in disgust or disbelief. In my notes, I wrote ‘disturbing,’ ‘uncomfortable’, ‘invasive’, ‘crass’, at various times. It’s a hard movie to watch. Necessary? I’m not sure.
‘Enjoy Poverty’ is a type of documentary I’d never seen before. The film maker, Renzo Marten’s isn’t trying simply to educate by giving us facts and showing us situations. This is ‘an art piece’, and therefore the viewer has to bring a different sense of expectations to watching it. Marten’s not trying to inform viewers about what he’s filming, he’s trying to make a point – about us the viewers as much as anything he’s pointing a camera at.
The film at first seems very hectic and disjointed. Except for letting the viewers know the general location of where Martens is, there is almost no expositional information. Martens shows us his footage of his travels through the Cong, and leaves it to us to piece together what is going on. Any narration that there is comes in camera, with Martens pointing the camera at his face, usually from a low angle. At the beginning of the documentary, I didn’t realize it would be as unconventional a film as it was, and I found the self-shots quite unsettling and vain. Like everything he does, there’s a point to it. As unsubtle as these points could be, I’m not sure if I got all of them.
Gradually, the pieces do come together. We see Martens learn how Western organizations and individuals profit from Congolese poverty. Much of the movie is his interactions with the Congolese, as he tries to ‘help’ them in various ways, be it teaching them how to profit from their poverty by taking pictures, or convincing them to enjoy what they can because they can’t change their poverty. I do understand some of what he’s trying to get across, and think that there are important lessons in this film. That being said, I can’t shake my distaste of how he goes about teaching these lessons. It feels like he’s using the Congolese as much as the people he’s criticizing. Which I understand is part of the point he’s making, but at the same time, like many of the things Martens films, it leaves me feeling very uncomfortable.
That being said, I’m grateful to the M.U.C.K festival for showing this. In introducing the movie, Dr Stuart Samuels – creative director of the festival- reminded us that the point of the festival was engagement and controversy, and that we should be enraged. That being the case, I think ‘Enjoy Poverty’ was a perfect film for the festival, and I really appreciated the Q & A afterwards. There were no special guests – it was just a chance for the audience to debrief a bit and talk to each other about what they had seen. After a movie like ‘Enjoy Poverty’, I think the audience really needed it.