Makala means charcoal in Swahili, and making and selling charcoal is the way Kawabita Kasongo, a young farmer from a small village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasha) hopes to get ahead in life. His dreams are similar to those of people everywhere—to build a home for his family and send his children to a better school. Emmanuel Gras’ documentary Makala follows Kasongo on this journey, illustrating each step of the proceess in such detail that it could be used for instruction. At the same time, Makala provides a vivid picture of life in the Congo for one ordinary man who is just doing the best he can for his family.
Makala shows far more than it tells, allowing the story to emerge gradually from a series of gorgeous visuals. We first meet Kasongo carrying an axe and walking toward the sunrise. We then see him meticulously preparing a large tree for felling, then chopping patiently until it falls. He cuts the branches and trunk in smaller pieces, then piles them up and buries them in what is basically a mud oven. In this way, the would can be heated without itself being consumed by fire, thus producing charcoal rather than ashes. This method of creating charcoal has also been used in Europe for centuries (as immortalized in A. A. Milne’s poem “The Charcoal Burner“), although less dangerous and more efficient methods are typically used today.
Once the charcoal iis completed, Kasongo loads it into plastic bags and ties them to a rickety bicycle, which he will push to the nearest city for sale. This trip, which takes days, offers plenty of hazards as well. He must walk on a road also used by motorized vehicles, driven by people who apparently have little concern for the consequences of hitting him or his bike. The hills are steep and his heavily loaded bicycle is not the most stable of vehicles. Finally, as a lone individual transporting a valuable cargo, he makes a ready target for thieves and extortionists, including one who demands a “toll” to allow him to pass (one wonders if this interaction were staged, and if not, why the film crew did not intervene). Once in the city, he must sell the charcoal, which requires both knowing the going price and being able to bargain with individual customers to get the most he can for his cargo. Nothing is assured and everything is hard, but the process offers him a rare opportunity to get some cash to purchase building materials.
Above all, Makala is a beautiful, contemplative film. There’s no disputing that Kasongo’s life is hard, , particularly in comparison with our expectations in the industrialized world. Still, there is great beauty to be found in the simplest interactions, whether at home playing with his daughters, visiting relatives, or attending church services. The countryside he passes through is also stunning, and the cinematography of Makala finds beauty even in dangerous situations like cars and trucks passing through the night fog. Makala has been deservingly showered with awards, including the Critic’s Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Mention for the Grierson Award at the London Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh
Makala is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras on the DVD include 6 deleted scenes, a Q & A session with director Emmanuel Gras from the Film Society at Lincoln Center (23 min.), and the film’s trailer.