The Death of Cinema in Congo: How Churches Killed Off Cowboy Films
Congo’s capital was once a hotbed of film. Opulent cinemas populated Kinshasa’s most fashionable districts and the city’s residents were devoted to 1960s spaghetti westerns, prompting a fashion craze for Borsalino hats and cowboy boots.
But today the magic of sitting in the dark watching stories unfold on the big screen is a distant memory for most Kinshasans. The only remaining film theatre closed down in 2004, leaving the city of 10 million without a single cinema.
In a new documentary, La Belle at the Movies, director Cecilia Zoppelletto charts cinema’s death in the country, while exploring the powerful place that film once occupied in Congolese society.
As revered film-maker Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda explains in the film, cinema was an important way to communicate stories to the rest of the world, reclaiming the image of the place. “Kinshasa is the most beautiful city in Africa,” he says. “But if you are 8,000 miles away in New York or London or Paris you have no desire to come to Kinshasa because the media portray a certain image of Congo.
“Therefore if I shoot a film about Congo, I will speak of [the place] differently. Cinema is an important art: it’s the art of telling the world about yourself.”
With the assistance of local director Zeka Laplaine, Zoppelletto takes us on a journey around the city streets and through the old, ruined cinemas. The names suggest glamour – VIP, Ciné Palace, Ciné Joly – but the reality is of dereliction and neglect.
“The Congolese directors were proud to have these cinemas,” reflects Laplaine. “The fact that young people could learn about cinema filled us with hope. [But nowadays] making films that you can’t show in your country, living in the hope that they can be seen abroad is terrible, a little like being an orphan. It’s erasing all the hope that our cinemas and audiences once had.”
The reasons for this decline are complex. Many of the disused cinema spaces have been converted into churches and the impact of religious opposition to film exhibition has been significant. “We censor with the word of God,” insists Albert Kankienza Mwana Mbo, president of the Église de Revéil de RDC, one of the most prominent churches in Congo.
According to Zoppelletto, Kankienza “has huge influence, is a major personality and his church influences everything from education to pop culture to one’s own free time – [they purport that] it is more important to spend your money on offerings in the church rather than on cinema tickets.”
Momo Sunguza, the former owner of the Kinshasa-based Cinemax cinema (which closed down in 1998) goes further: “The old cinemas have been invaded by prayer groups. We had problems with parents who wouldn’t let their children go to the cinemas because they said it was devilish and against their beliefs.”
Yet Kankienza is unrepentant in his principles. “Back then, films influenced the education of the youth,” he says. “We had many epidemics because of cinema. When young people follow things which aren’t a good influence and try to apply them [to their lives], havoc ensues.
“Young people mustn’t watch too many films with violence because it brainwashes and disturbs them. We must become wary of films with too much violence or disorderly sex. Spy movies, war movies – that’s what I like.”
Zoppelletto’s documentary is teeming with these contradictions and captures a very real sense of frustration at the heart of these Congolese filmmakers, most of whom have now left the country.
This sense of artistic inertia is compounded by the pirate video industry which, as Zoppelletto points out, is thriving in the city. The pirates dictate which films enter the country and, by proxy, which films are available to residents. They have essentially become film curators, ensuring a steady diet of cheaply imported – and dubiously copied – action and kung fu films.
Almost all of the 60 television channels in the region also source content from these private video distributors.
But despite these setbacks, the local film-makers never seem to lose sight of cinema as a force for good.
With the help of the local ministry, Bakupa-Kanyinda is currently attempting to build a national school of cinema, working from a grassroots level with the intention of sending films each year to compete in international film festivals. Accordingly, La Belle at the Movies features interviews with residents recounting the impact that cinema had on their youth, and their wish to see it return to their everyday lives.
“Shared experiences make a community,” reflects Zoppelletto, “there is nothing more thrilling than being with others in a dark theatre and together burst out in laughter or being in suspense. These shared emotions make us feel equal to the stranger sitting next to us and [because of this], cinema is a very democratic art.”
Source: The Guardian