Alt Africa talks to Cinematographer/Director Emmanuel Gras, known for previous work that includes 300 Souls (2014), La motivation! (2003), Gras has recently released Makala (2017) which is in UK cinemas now. Makala which is Swahili for charcoal shows the back-breaking work that Kabwita, who lives in a Congolese village does to support his family. This is not an easy feat as Gras takes us through the process from beginning to end. Kabwita controls the action in which we the audience might get a little complacent, forgetting that this is real life not fiction. The reality in this beautifully shot documentary where life is simple and where Kabwita wants what every man wants, despite extreme poverty. He wants to build a home for his family there is the dream of “a mango tree, three bedrooms and a back and front garden”. The dietary staple includes the local rats for the 28-year-old and his wife Lydia. Gras’s approach is to take an observatory role allowing the action to speak for itself. There are moments of tension when after chopping down the tree and making the charcoal, Kabwita sets out on a three-day journey with a bike filled with charcoal supported and controlled only by his wire-ly frame. When he is combated by a “tariff” who refuses to let him forward unless he pays and when his bike falls over and he loses some of his charcoal, Gras sits back and allows the audience to feel the anticipation, with no special effects or social commentary. When Kabwita finally arrives in the busy city you want nothing more than for his hard work to be rewarded and for him to sell all his charcoal. With breath- taking cinematography, Gras presents a strong human story one where Kabwita is working just to survive, devoid of any lifestyle, but despite everything there is hope. Makala deservedly won the 2017 Cannes Critic Week Grand Prize.
Makala (2017) Running time: 96 MIN. Showing at selected Curzon and Picturehouse cinemas check their websites for details.
Q: How did you find Kabwita?
GRAS: Before I knew Kabwita I knew the region and I went there for several films. During the filming of another documentary, which was about the construction of a road. That was some years ago and so I spent a lot of time on the road. I started watching the charcoal producers with their bikes and I was very impressed with what they were doing, and I started asking questions about where they came from. I understood it was people from villages around the cities. They pushed their bikes from the villages. It was very important for the people to do this job, important for the life of the country. So, I developed the idea to follow a man, I had the intuition that by this very simple narrative going from the moment that the tree is cut down to where the charcoal is sold it would tell a story, just by following the guy who was doing the job. I had the concept of the film before meeting Kabwita. After that I went with a friend who is a Congolese journalist, in different stages to find someone I could document. It is by chance we went to Walemba and Kabwita was coming back from his field, he had something, the way he moved, the way he was acting, or I would say reacting. Other people when you arrive, and you ask them questions they show off, they want to be the first one to show- off. I felt he had a kind of personality and I connected immediately to him. and that he was the right one.
Q: What was the message that you wanted an audience to grasp?
GRAS: I never do a film with a strong message, what is important for me is the audience experiencing another kind of life. What I intended do was to show the immense effort that goes into producing something so simple like charcoal and the huge difference of the economic value of that product and the human value, and the human effort behind it. So first, the idea was about making a documentary about work, what it means when your life depends on it, when you stop working you die, if he cannot work he cannot feed his family. when you in a country like that you are in a deep situation, where you must do something, but the effort just allows you to continue to live. and that is what I wanted to show there was no message behind that.
Q: From a cinematic perspective can you explain some of the filming process?
GRAS: Technically there was just two of us filming, and I had a sound engineer. I had my Congolese friend, the journalist with us. We had two cameras one was very small, a simple camera on the shoulder. I was always moving so I did not use a tripod. Then I had a handheld camera that could film video. I used the two cameras successively.
Q: When filming what was the difficult moments, like when the charcoal fell of the bike?
GRAS: That was the most surprising moment, the audience might ask why doesn’t he help him, the thing with Kabwita if he needed help he would tell me and we would stop, but the idea was I was there to film his work and make the film in the best way we could. So, I did not direct to him to stop. Yes, when the coal dropped we stopped. But most of the time he was the one in charge of when we stopped and what we filmed. I knew that there would be some difficult situations. That was part of the film and I was there to film.
Q: What was it like filming the three-day journey, was it safe?
GRAS: Maybe it was dangerous (laughs) there was just the three of us on the road and security. I don’t know, when you are filming in a way you don’t think about danger in the same way. I was focused on the camera. We knew the dangerous aspects on the road, it was part of the film and that we had to film at night.
Q: In the beginning there was about 5-6 minutes of film showing Kabwita chopping down an enormous tree can you tell me why this scene was important?
GRAS: From the beginning of the project I had this vision of someone chopping down a tree. It is a very powerful scene where this relationship between restriction and creation and human beings having to destroy something very beautiful just to live. It was also about the fact that because the people did not have money to buy electricity and if they had money there was no electricity. They must live in world where they must destroy their environment even if in the long run it is very bad for everybody. It is the beginning of a circle. It part of the meaning of the film, what we are doing on earth and living with restrictions.
Q: How long did the film take to make:
GRAS: One month and a half.
Q: What is next?
GRAS: I do not know I am working on different projects, nothing is in production. I am writing one fiction and one documentary film?