The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the second-largest country in Africa, is normally only portrayed in terms of its troubled past and present: colonialism, civil wars, violence and corruption. But in Kristof Bilsen’s documentary Elephant's Dream, an intriguing meditation on twenty-first century life in the African country, we are shown conflict of a rather more muted kind: the one-sided battle between state and private interest, in particular the extent of Chinese investment in the country.
Bilsen focuses in on three public sector employees still holding down jobs in the crumbling state system in Kinshasa. We are introduced to them by long stationary shots – firstly of their place of work and then each individual within that environment – to show the unchanging stillness of their lives.
Henriette works at the deserted post office, Simon at a virtually disused railway station where we also meet his colleague and friend Nzai, and philosophising Lieutenant Kasunga sits all day at the desperately basic fire station, the only one to serve a city of 9 million.
Wages are generally unpaid or many months too late, and despite hope coming for Henriette when the post office is turned into a money-transfer agency through foreign investment, in reality nothing much changes. The country is desperately poor and infrastructure in terms of the citizens’ everyday lives shown to be at a virtual standstill.
The film opens with a quote from the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, although in an interview in 1994 with The Paris Review, Achebe states it is an African proverb: ‘[…] the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.' The film’s title also makes reference to the perspective of a grand narrative: ‘The elephant dreams of one thing and the elephant driver dreams of another.’ It’s a rather beautiful saying, so eloquent yet simple, and Bilsen’s feature goes some way towards illuminating its meaning.
These citizens are forgotten, listless, unimportant in the broad sweep of international trade and profit, trapped in dead-end jobs, living life with little hope or direction, only the guidance of God. But it’s hard for the film to be more than a lyrical reflection on a far away place when we don’t get closer to those who populate this dilapidated world, when we’re not initiated into their dreams.
It’s refreshing to see any creative turn away from the explanatory nature of modern culture – headphones in art galleries, constant Wikipedia research, anxiety over oblique narrative twists – we’re not really into mystery or the unknown anymore. But most especially in cinema, we thrive on story, and it is storytelling that is strangely lacking here.
The film tells us nothing of Congolese history, though the effects of colonialism are there to be observed: everyone speaks French and we only hear songs sung in African; the boots the workers wear are cast-offs from Westerners; the poverty and sense of abandonment. But far more significantly we don’t learn about our three protagonists, we do not share their hopes or their troubles, not in any significant way.
Even small things that would bring these tales to life are left unexplained such as Lieutenant Kasunga’s joke about Article 15. A humourous reference, I subsequently discover, from Mobutu-dictatorship days to a supposed entry in the constitution recommending the people to steal in order to survive. Though we can guess the general meaning, without knowledge of Congolese politics, the moment – its suggestion of troubled times past and that things are no better – is somewhat lost.
True, Elephant's Dream purposefully rejects the notion of a narrative arc that would suggest hope, consolidation, meaning; the non-narrative is the message and in some ways it works. But I’m not sure a structural mirroring of the lives being led by Henriette, Simon, Lieutenant Kasunga and countless other millions was needed. It would perhaps have been better to bring them into a different reality, however fleeting or other, where their stories and histories could for once be heard.
The East End Film Festival runs until July 12th
You can consult the full programme and buy tickets on the festival's official website