NYFF Review: Kinshasa Kids


[For the next month, we will be covering the 50th New York Film Festival. Keep coming back to Flixist for news, features, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films on the festival circuit in 2012. Check out all of our coverage here.]

I’m a fan of mockumentaries/fictional documentaries when they’re done well. This is Spinal Tap is still one of the gold standards, and its dark cousin would probably be Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous), also an effective play with the form. Both of these films have the documentary filmmakers enfolded into the action of the movie in various ways. You can also have the fictional documentarians completely disengaged from the action, like in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, etc.) or the UK and stateside versions of The Office.

Kinshasa Kids sort of has it both ways, oddly enough. The filmmakers call attention to the fact that this is a pseudo-documentary or mockumentary and appear briefly on camera. Then they disappear as a presence from the film. It made me wonder why they even needed to insinuate themselves in the movie.

The presence and non-presence of the documentarians is maybe nitpicky, but it points out a certain looseness and arbitrariness to Kinshasa Kids, and it becomes especially problematic for me towards the end.

Kinshasa Kids
Director: Marc-Henri Wajnberg
Rating: TBD
Country: Belgium/France

Kinshasa is the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its population is roughly 9 million. Of those 9 million, there are 25,000 children living in the streets, though some estimates have the number as high as 50,000. They’ve been driven from their own homes because their parents think they’re witches. Kinshasa Kids opens with the exorcism of witch kids, showing them splashed with water and forced into conniption fits as priests pretend to suck the evil out of them. It’s all screams and sleight of hand as children cry and feign speaking in tongues. The demon within is a just dead lizard secreted in someone’s robe, some chicken guts palmed like an illusionist, other offal from small animals sucked out of bodies and spit into plastic bags. One child runs away and the filmmakers follow him, illuminating the life of a number.

Kinshasa Kids often feels real even when it’s staged, like a verite narrative feature. We are there in the streets with the kids and quickly learn the unkind realities of their existence. On a dirty rooftop where several children sleep. they wear their sandals around the ankles or the forearms at night to deter theft. Below them is a colorful marketplace. As harsh weather kicks the tents and tarps of the shops, the fabric undulates like some odd blend of wind sock and jellyfish. There’s a beat-up truck in Kinshasa Kids with lots of character — it looks like it’s made of rust and coral. The children themselves that we follow are colorful, and the most memorable, at least visually, is the one who looks and moves like Michael Jackson.

When it’s at its best, Kinshasa Kids has very little artifice at play. Those moments reminded me of docs like Dark Days and Children Underground. We follows various Kinshasa lives. People share hooch and weed with each other. A man with polio tripos along with crutches — one leg hangs limp and thin while the other is strong and inert. He sells little baggies of powder applied topically for sexual vigor. Testament to his product is just barely outlined through his nylon gym shorts. In addition to the children, there’s a musician named Bebson who helps bust a jam every now and then. He’s a grown-up street kid trying to make it as a musician, or at least occasionally trying to make it. His presence is as colorful as those tent tops, and his sunglasses would make Bootsy Collins and Elton John jealous. Music winds up being a respite from the normal woes of the day, whether it’s classical or funk-infused.

There’s a handful of musical numbers in the film, a few by Bebson and some by the kids. The film can’t really be considered a musical in any normal definition of the word — they stop to perform rather than integrating the performances into the narrative. But these pauses are little pockets of hope. This is how people in bad situations are able to get through the day, and things can get really bad on the streets of Kinshasa. The cops are corrupt, and we’re shown how they work with or against the large orphan population. And if it’s not the authorities taking advantage of you, it’s other kids or older kids. Toward the end of the movie we see some children in danger. This is horror happens in Kinshasa all the time, but so does the music. Neither can be avoided.

I think it was this moment of endangerment (even though it was staged for the mockumentary) that made me question Marc-Henri Wajnberg’s form for the film. The moment you insert the presence of the filmmakers into a mockumentary or fictional documentary, there’s an expectation of filmmaker involvement in the narrative. Marti DiBergi is an acknowledged character who interacts with the band Spinal Tap; the filmmakers of Man Bites Dog become part of Remy’s vicious world. In Kinshasa Kids, the filmmakers get to experience first-hand the grift of the local police, but then they recede, ghost-like, and become a non-entity. Every so often someone will point out that there’s a white film crew there but not always.

So in this moment of endangerment, I wondered how the fictional filmmakers could let what happens just happen. There is only violence targeted at the kids and not the filmmakers, as if no one would think to go for the guys who are recording evidence of a violent crime. And to that, I wonder how the kids can just allow themselves to be filmed by such a passive presence who might have been able to help. It may be commentary on the harshness of life in Kinshasa, or it could be an indictment of the Western world’s passivity when it comes to witnessing horrors in a foreign place — we have the proof of bad things, but we don’t want to get our hands dirty once we’re there. It’s kind of remarkable how one moment of artifice highlights many others.

Another instance of artifice: the sudden use of animation in a scene involving Bebson. It’s used only that one time, and I’m not sure why. The same goes for a traffic cop superimposed into traffic. He gets his dance on instead of directing cars and causes a pile-up. The artifice is for comic effect, but it also detracts from the realism of the narrative. Wajnberg might be using these scenes to bring the audience out of the mire these kids face, but I’m not sure it’s helpful. There’s also the case of just one film crew of three people being in two locations at once. Suddenly the interesting formal choice becomes a constraint, this barrier to telling an involving story that feels real. I wouldn’t even classify these filmic scenes as an analog to the escapism of music — these notes just feel out of place.

I wonder if the mockumentary aspect of the film was even necessary. What would be lost if the filmmakers were not a presence? There may have been a fear of losing the interviews with people on the street, and that’s a legitimate worry since they’re a fascinating addition to the film. If they just lost the presence of the filmmakers in the narrative, these issues might not have even come up while I was watching the movie. I may have just accepted the roving camera that could be wherever it had to and whenever it needed to be there.

But formal quibbles aside (and the moral obligations of fictional adults to fictional children), Kinshasa Kids drifts a lot. There’s no real conflict in the film and we’re simply following lives as they are lived — loosely, freely, doing whatever you need to, going wherever it is the day takes you. There isn’t even an emotional shape. We’re simply viewers. It makes sense for these children who can’t go home and have no prospects in life. We can only watch them carry on. Wajnberg ‘s concern is sincere and can’t be questioned in terms of form or direction, but I wonder if the movie could have done something more than played witness.

[Kinshasa Kids will screen at the Walter Reade Theater on October 11th and at the Howard Gilman Theater on October 12th.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.