Friday, August 24, 2018

Movie Review: Makala

Makala *** / *****
Directed by: Emmanuel Gras.
There is a lot of beauty to Emmanuel Gras’ Makala – a documentary about one man in the Congo who makes and sells charcoal to earn his modest living. The film never explicitly mentions the extreme poverty it portrays, and doesn’t dwell on it either – preferring to let shots of the family grilling rats, or talking about their extremely modest goals speak for themselves. Instead, Gras and his camera focuses on Kabwita Kasongo, and the enormous amount of work that goes into everything he does to make his business work. First he has to cut down an enormous tree, then he chops it into smaller pieces. Next, he’s got to turn those pieces into charcoal – a long, hit process. He then loads up his aging bike with bulging sacks full of that charcoal, so he can push that bike 50 km, by himself, to town – where he has to deal with people trying to scam him on entry to the town, and then has to negotiate the prices with the locals, all of whom tell him he’s crazy for how much he wants for his charcoal (some still buy though).
Gras doesn’t fetishize poverty – but he does find beauty in his film. The centerpiece section of the film – that long, slow journey pushing his bike, is beautifully shot with Steadicam, and focus almost exclusively on Kabwita the whole time – pushing in on his face, and showing as the sweat streams off of him. The film cannot help but admire him, and the sheer determination and hard work it takes him to make that journey. Gras seems to be saying that if Kabwita can make that journey, than he and his camera will as well, capturing every moment – and the least the audience can do is watch. It is quietly mesmerizing – Kabwita barely utters a word during this time, although at others, he will talk a lot.
I’m not going to tell you that Makala is the most entertaining or riveting documentary you can watch. It is not, and nor is it trying to be. What it wants to do is show the extremes that some people in this world have to go for simple survival. Kabwita has to do so much, for so little – his dream of building a new home, with a metal roof, seems almost completely out of reach for him – especially when we find out how much those metal sheets cost. Yet, the film is not depressing or hopeless either. You have to admire Kabwita and his determination to do what he does – and if he doesn’t feel sorry for himself, than we shouldn’t either.
I will say, I’m not exactly sure what the lengthy sequence at the end of the film is there for – after Kabwita has finally sold his load, and before he heads home, he stops by a church service – one that stretches on for minutes on end, and shows many people – of which Kabwita is just one – preying to, and thanking God. Is the whole movie a religious tract in disguise – or is this just another part of Gras’ determination to show Kabwita and his world? I’m honestly not sure, but it comes at the end of a film that as dull as it sounds (and honestly, sometimes is), still got to me.

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