Congolese Street Musicians, Making Themselves Heard, in Benda Bilili

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Benda Bilili
Directed by Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tuyalle
National Geographic Entertainment
Opens September 30
IFC Center

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When French filmmakers and music lovers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tuyalle landed in the Congo in 2004 with the intention of recording some local music, they had no idea that their dream would take five years, grow to include a documentary film, and be centered on four paraplegic musicians, three able-bodied ones, and the homeless boy (a self-taught music wunderkind with a homemade string instrument) they took in. The template of this film is familiar: White Europeans travel to an impoverished nation and fall in love with its music and the magnetically resilient people of color who make it. Add in the physical disabilities, and you have a recipe for the kind of third-world cinematic uplift that Western audiences love and critics do not. But real-life hard-knock plot twists, as well as some tweaking of form (there’s no narrator or voiceover of any kind; the film’s subjects outline their grim realities largely through their rhythmically upbeat songs) make the film absolutely riveting, as does the fiercely rousing music. The group, Staff Benda Bilili—the name translates to “look beyond appearances”—was meant to embark on its first U.S. tour this fall, but last-minute visa issues threw a wrench in those plans, and the tour was canceled. See the film to glimpse something of the band’s awesome stage show.

 
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