Today’s NYFF update: Alan Scherstuhl on Kinshasa Kids, a vital, urgent film on the main slate.
Directed by Marc-Henri Wajnbergos
Screens Thursday, October 11 and Friday, October 12
“The white man’s filming!” a cop complains early in Kinshasa Kids, sharking toward the camera as the vibrant tumult of the Congo’s largest city convulses undisturbed around him. The camera stays on as he hauls off the offender, catching feet and puddles, a cramped trailer office, and — just once — a pale and hairy arm. A supervisor vaguely OKs the white man’s paperwork, and an implied donation of cash seals it: Marc-Henri Wajnbergos is free to keep making Kinshasa Kids, certainly the world’s first fictional documentary Congolese street musical.
The careful viewer will have sussed out that all this has been staged, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in its way true. Wajnbergos did bribe enough cops in real life that he was free to film Kinshasa’s real street acting out not-quite-real street lives for an unsettling, occasionally thrilling film that you could probably convince the YouTube crowd is a straight-up doc.
That’s the second rare freedom on display here: to employ all the is-this-real? does it matter? gamesmanship perfected by Jafar Panah in films like The Mirror, the one in which Mina, the headstrong lost girl the film has been trailing across Clusterfuck, Tehran, for 45 minutes, starts bawling and announces she doesn’t want to act anymore.
Nothing here is as daring — or momentous — as that. But so adept is Wajnbergos at staging what feels like life that every once in a while, the filmmaker seems to vanish, and Kinshasa and its kids and its whole mad everything-at-onceness seem to be coming at us unfiltered: Then, someone in the crowd will shout something like, “There’s a white man filming!” and the fact that everyone else is acting like the camera isn’t there makes artifice clear: These are scenes. These are actors. There is a crew. They’re probably an hour away from lunch.
I appreciate the reminder. Wajnbergos’ Kinshasa — and the real one — can be brutal: 25,000 street kids, many runaways from their villages after being accused of witchcraft, all competing for jobs, food, and sleeping spaces. But the film isn’t ever brutal, even in its suggestion of a rape. (Wajnbergos says that all of his young cast had suffered rapes in real life.) “Let’s party!” one kid (Gabi Bolenge) exults as he tears into a stolen banana box, and the dashes through marketplaces and over buildings exhilarate. From the kids’ perspective, it’s a city of roof and puddles.
Understandably charmed by the music of his subject city, Wajnbergos affects a story tying his urchins to the undiscovered Congolese rapper/singer Bebson Elemba (here playing Bebson “De La Rue”), a charming performer with one of those pinched-up voices that can sound fashionably auto-tuned straight out of his mouth. Amid all this well-grimed artlessness, he functions as a relief — and something of a savior. Wajnbergos allows him a couple of grand showstoppers, and by the end, Bebson has teamed up with the street kids to no-shit put on a show, and by that point, there’s no more chance in mistaking this for real-life: So smashing are the performances Bebson and these kids pull from one another that he might as well be Bing Crosby in Going My Way.
In Kinshasa Kids, Wajnbergos often fashions fiction that feels like what Kinshasa must feel like when there’s not a white man there filming it. Elsewhere, he indulges in bravura montages centered on musical performances, including one hard-to-shake performance of the Sanctus from Mozart’s Requiem. In these, and in the film’s jubilant ending, which tilts toward a new life for these kids, he fashions something altogether different: what that white man wishes Kinshasa to be. (Alan Scherstuhl)
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