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CINÉMA DU RÉEL 2020

Review: Makongo

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- Elvis Sabin Ngaïbino puts his name to an immersive and moving documentary on an unshakeable desire for education against all odds amidst an outsider community

Review: Makongo

"School is what brings us together in spite of our differences. They stigmatise me, but I’ve still always pushed forwards." In the Central African Republic, the Aka pygmies live in extreme destitution, inhabiting makeshift camps on the margins of society and on the edge of the deep and luxuriant forest. When night falls, total darkness descends, barely broken by the glow of the campfire. Yet, two teenagers keep their faith in the virtues of education, and it’s in their tenacious and altruistic wake that Makongo [+see also:
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 settles itself, a first feature film by Elvis Sabin Ngaïbino which is screening in the international competition of the 42nd Cinéma du réel Festival (an event set to continue online until 22 March for its jurors and badgeholders) following a stint in Venice’s Final Cut.

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When André and Albert set off for school, it’s quite a journey they have ahead of them: through the forest with their machetes in hand, walking in mud or waist-deep water with their bags above their heads, drinking out of puddles by way of a leaf, examining the vegetation around them for future sources of sustenance, joining up with the dirt track and, at last, reaching civilisation and their classroom for a dictation exercise ("it’s clear he has the writing demon within him… classic writers such as Voltaire and La Bruyère"). But the two boys (who are already fathers to young babies) are happy and proud: André is accepted into Year 12 and Albert progresses to Year 10, thanks to the indulgence of the director who urges them to set an example for their pygmy families, as these two youngsters are the only ones in their community who go to school ("it’s your fault if people look down on you, you have to be clean. The State wants to help you Pygmies, so try to be like us"). It’s a piece of advice that our two "heroes" take quite literally, starting up literacy lessons with the children in their camps, lugging about a blackboard on their backs, creating slates with whatever resources they have to hand and picking gnetum (a type of plant) with a view to trading it for chalk. But it’s the caterpillar harvest that they’re really waiting for (the titular “makongo” caterpillar), which will allow them to head to the capital, Bangui, and earn enough to sign a few children up to "real school". And whilst nothing is ever easy in a challenging environment - in meteorological, economic and social terms - the two friends doggedly drive on forwards with their quest, determined to deliver on their promises.

Filmed with great confidence (some of the sequence shots depicting forest wanderings are particularly outstanding) and conveying to a tee the omnipresent aural landscape of the jungle, Makongo is a fascinating, ethnographic examination of a nigh-on autarkic community (whose dramas and exultations are experienced collectively) and its links with a world dominated by money. But it’s also a charming portrait of two young messengers on a mission, armed with innocence and resourcefulness. 

Makongo is produced by Italy’s Daniele Incalcaterra (via his Argentine outfit) in association with Bangui’s Alliance Française and Ateliers Varan.

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(Translated from French)

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