Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 01, 2012 6:07 pm 
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Runaway child "witches" join a band

Kinshasa Kids is at least an admirable idea: to make a mixed-genre movie using the street kids of Congo's semi-wrecked capital. There are twenty-five or thirty thousand of them, mostly branded as "witches" by father's whose wives have left them or by second wives who don't want to raise somebody else's child. They are sent to churches for expensive (and terrifying) purification rituals (shown at the film's outset), but those don't keep the kids from being rejected and so they run away to live by stealing (the film follows one). The Belgian director Marc-Henri Wajnberg decided to make a sort of musical. Or at least the little group he narrowed down to his core cast of eight kids he groomed as a band. He found a local rapper called Bebson Elemba, dubbed in the movie "Bebson de la Rue" -- the local patois has a liberal mix of French in it and some of the street people -- a prostitute, for example -- can speak an approximate form of the Gallic tongue. Bebeon becomes the group's leader.

When Jose, the kid we follow from home to the streets and rooftops of Kinshasa, joins a group with one boy who befriends him, he's asked to sing, to justify inclusion among them. Bebson takes the boys and the one girl to a makeshift studio and "auditions" them and sees their potential marketability. His own as yet unrealized hope to make a CD is alluded to amid the rapid and chaotic dialogue that accompanies the camera's sweeps through the streets.

The result is colorful, alright. The Congolese and these kids in particular are warm and funny and full of life. But as filmmaking, despite nimble camerawork by Danny Elsen and Colin Houben that even follows a fast foot chase through the rubbish-strewn streets, is mediocre. This partly due to the editing: Wajnberg appears to have had too much footage to deal with. It's also due to his peculiar notion that documentary style is scarmbled and only semi-coherent as narrative. It seems Wajnberg is trying to do something like Marcel Camus' classic Black Orpheus -- without the mythological theme or the charismatic stars or the inspired filmmaking. But he can't bring out his gang of eight clearly enough from the surrounding crowds. There is a lot or funning around, squabbling, and chatter, and while the film uses fake cops to dramatize the constant demands for bribes (justified by the fact that the police had not been paid for many months), there's also a real car crash and real cops who rush in afterwards. There's all this stuff happening, and the kids' story half drowns.

You get a view of insanely overloaded train cars, people hanging out of every wondow and standing all over the roof; and insanely overloaded motorcycles. There's some snappy, hard-driving music from the little band; there's also a classical concert with orchestra and chorus performing Mozart's Sanctus that is supposed to inspire the kids to collaborate with Bebson in a public concert using borrowed or stolen audio equipment. Wajberg and his collaborators don't know how to get close enough to the individual kids for personalities to emerge, except one, Rachel, is a girl, and another, Mickael, who wears a tilted bowler and does a passable Moonwalk, aspires to be like Michael Jackson. Bebson wears these weird sunglasses. Wajnberg may have had a bang-up time, and his instant kid stars may have been lifted from Third World poverty and homelessness, but his flashy postcard falls flat. Wajnberg has made pure documentaries up to this. He doesn't seem to have quite understood how to morph his methods into a fictional story. A Screen Daily review from the Venice screening suggests this film "is most obviously a feel-good story in the long-running ‘society outcasts form a band and achieve success’ genre – and it’s here that it doesn’t quite deliver," for the reason that the trajectory is not convincingly followed. All the local color gets in the way. Fiction means telling a satisfying story, and for all its vivid material, that goal eludes Kinshasa Kids.

There is a throwaway appearance by Congalese musical superstar Papa Wemba. The core street kid group: Jose Mawanda, Rachel Mwanza, Emmanuel Fakoko, Gabi Bolenge, Gauthier Kiloko, Joel Eziegue, Mickael Fataki, Samy Molebe , plus Bebson De la Rue.

Kinshasa Kids debuted at Venice and also played at Toronto. Screened for this review as part of the Main Slate of the 50th New York Film Festival, at Lincoln Center, October 1, 2012.

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