Horrific orgies of violence at film festival

In the small hours of wet equatorial nights, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo must wonder whether the fate of their country would have been different if they did not have all that mineral wealth. In terms of natural resources, the DRC must rank as one of the richest countries on Earth, boasting fertile soils, the second-biggest river on the continent and some of the most valuable minerals, including diamonds, gold and coltan.

Coltan, a mineral extracted from a black rock comprising columbine and tantalite, is the muse of War Witch, the dark film by French-Canadian director Kim Nguyen (this is not the occasion to talk about the politics of a foreigner making a film about Africa).

The mineral, a key component in cellphones, computers and other electronic products, is the backdrop to the horrific violence that we witness.

What makes the situation unbearable is that the violence is perpetrated by children — boys whose voices have hardly broken, girls whose chests are still flat. Nguyen has done his filmic bit for the ­war-child genre. Other notable works are the books Beasts of No Nation (Uzo-dinma Iweala), Song for Night (Chris Abani), Measuring Time (Helon Habila) and What Is the What (Dave Eggers).

But to call this a child-soldier movie is a bit inaccurate. What emerges vividly is the otherworldly African metaphysics through which this conflict is being waged. Ghosts and witches and magicians and their lucky charms make this more of a ritual war than a war for the precious black rock that has made the writing of this story on a computer possible. It is said millions of people died in this war. No one really knows how many.

The number of people who died in the 1994 genocide in the giant DRC’s tiny neighbour to its east, Rwanda, is not in dispute. Up to a million people, mostly Tutsis, were killed by Hutu militias. The aftermath of this tragedy is the subject of Grey Matter, a cerebral, claustrophobic film by Kivu Ruhorahoza.  

This movie will not tell you how many people died. The director is not really interested in the larger national narrative. He turns inward to make sense of what the tragedy, which took his father and mother, has done to his psyche and the “grey matter” of his brain.

The protagonist spends his waking hours locked inside, sometimes wearing a motorbike helmet, agonising over the genocide that has left him incapable of dealing with humanity. It is difficult to retain the viewer’s interest for more than an hour if you are locked in a room lamenting your fate while seeing imaginary people burning.

At the time of the genocide, hundreds of thousands of people fled Rwanda to go to Europe, the United States, Kenya and Tanzania. Some came to South Africa. This is the ­subject of Akin Omotoso’s impressive new film, Man on Ground, about a refugee in South Africa. I don’t think the film is set in 2008 when scores of Africans were killed in a xenophobic orgy of violence. But anyone watching it will find themselves looking back to that moment, when not being South African was a huge risk.

Man on Ground narrows down its subject to the fate of one man and  amplifies the tragedy of the violence. Some reports suggested the outburst of violence was spontaneous; the film complicates this narrative by throwing in the personal, intrigue and localised politics.

 The abiding motif from this alternately harrowing and engaging film is fire: the blaze from a matchstick (the shots of people lighting cigarettes are scary yet majestic), the consuming heat of a car going up in flames, the fiery love of a people who risk all to do something for a fellow human in trouble.

The Durban International Film Festival runs from August 19 to 29. Go to durbanfilmfest.co.za

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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