Makala means charcoal in Swahilli which is aptly the title and causal theme of this intimate if overwhelming documentary by French director/ cinematographer, Emmanuel Gras. Makala chronicles a young man's (Kabwita Kasongo) fight to earn a living for his family in modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo. The feature was awarded the illustrious Critic's Week Grand Prize at Cannes last year and now sees its UK release through documentary purveyors Dogwoof on the 2nd of February 2018.
The camera follows Kasongo through the entire process of making and selling charcoal to buy a tin roof for his young family. We follow the strenuous process of charcoal production; from the chopping of a tree to burning it under a mount of earth. Once it reaches coal form, it is bagged-up and mounted on to an old bike which Kasongo manually pushes all the way to the nearest town's market, roughly over a two day period away. Once there he tries to flog it. As Kasongo's path unfolds, he crosses other fellow local who like him are undertaking this goliath mission. Their grueling journey however, means nothing to the unrelenting business owners and housewives, who incessantly haggle down the price as much as possible.
Shot in a purely observational style, Gras's camera remains an unblinking bystander throughout, illuminating Kasongo's Herculean task and his determination to see his duty to the end. It is truly astonishing what Kasongo has to go through for mere pounds, when converted from Congolese Francs. This miniscule amount of money will however, provide a new roof for his family. Gras abstains, as far as the viewer can see, from aiding Kasongo. We are privy to Kasongo's nail-biting struggles: stumbling over steep hills and stones, the inevitable derailment that tears a few bags open or once outside the market town he is stopped and forced to give up a bag as entry fee by seemingly self-appointed gatekeepers. The obstacles ramp up the tension as we see Kasongo battling it out against opposing forces. His agony is unplatable, the strain visible on his face but his steely determination is unwavering.
In the wild there is a tranquility and silence, allowing for the viewer to focus in on Kasongo; with only mininmal sounds like the frequency of his bike's tinkering signalling the speed at which he's going. Kasongo's painstaking voyage becomes less internal once entering the town. The stillness is soon enough, replaced by the town's hustle and bustle from cars and people. Kasongo's isolation is interrupted by the various characters entering radar; his wife's sister and her children, the numerous buyers at the market or the church congregation introduced in the final scenes.
Kasongo's resolve and stamina is truly inspiring. Gras'probable intentions with Makala is to commend but also highlight the extremity of Kasongo's efforts for just plain survival and by doing so contradict his life with that of the viewers watching the documentary.
Makala is released on the 2nd February 2018.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_
Follow Candid Magazine on Instagram