When I think of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I think of the fourth most populous African country, with 71 million people calling it home. I also think of a devastating war that lasted from 1998 to roughly 2003 (although fighting continued well after). I think of disease, malnutrition and a fierce divide between the rich and the unimaginably poor. Certainly I do not think of joyful, hopeful music and a rich culture of community. This is the problem with getting all my information from news media, and it is the reason why documentary film continues to be an integral piece in creating a world community, conscious of the ways in which people really live, regardless of how it is best packaged for ratings on the evening news. Benda Bilili! is a just such a film — one that enlightens and enlivens as much as it informs.
There are a lot of things in the Kinshasa slums: small gangs of children who sleep on cardboard and steal to live; families of 5 or 6 who live in supportive housing (a loose term for a large concrete structure with a number of dividers); and a large population of people with disabilities, either born with birth defects or being afflicted by polio. In this environment it is easy to be downtrodden and caustic. It’s easy to feel like the world is against you. Enter filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye came to the Congo to make a documentary about urban music. Little did they know that they would find Benda Bilili!, a band of men who live in this area (many disabled by polio) who write joyful music about the lives they lead and the hope that keeps them down. Knowing what they had and being spurned on by the infectious enthusiasm of this wonderful group of men, the filmmakers decided not only to chronicle the journey of Benda Bilili!, but also to raise money to help them record an album. This film is the result of that journey.
Documentary film is a tricky thing. As filmmakers chronicle a period of time in their subjects’ lives, they sometimes lose the objectivity necessary to continue to tell a good story. In Benda Bilili!, the closeness and investment the filmmakers made is what makes the film succeed. It has been crafted together so lovingly, as though they knew that the film they were making would serve as a lifeline to the outside world, not only for the members of Benda Bilili!, but for everyone in the Kinshasa slums. It’s this that is the film’s greatest strength. At no time does the film make an example of these men; never does it attempt to incite your pity. It treats its subjects with as much respect and reverence as it would if the film were being made about members of a regular folk band trying to make it. Their circumstance is never touted as being that much worse than anyone else’s, which puts the viewer at ease, allowing for enjoyment of the events, rather than feeling a constant tugging at the heartstrings.
That is not to say that the story of Benda Bilili! is not incredible. Nor should you take that to mean that this film will not inspire feelings. It’s just that those feelings come from the genuine talent, hope and zest for life that the members of the band have. Couple that with truly great music and you’ve got both a great film and an eye-opening experience. Benda Bilili! literally translated means “look beyond appearances”, which is exactly what this film encourages you to do.
Benda Bilili! opens Friday, October 14 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check tiff.net for showtimes and details. (Seriously. Don’t miss it.)