Review: Empire of Silence
- Thierry Michel looks back on a drama which has lasted almost 30 years, unfolding in one of the richest countries in the world whose people are one of the poorest
In the early 1990s, Thierry Michel travelled to the Congo to film the troubles tearing through Kinshasa. In no time at all, he developed a filmmaker’s interest in the Congo, which resulted in a dozen or so films exploring the history, geography, industry and politics of this vast country, as expansive as Europe; a real open-air jewellery shop whose resources have been relentlessly plundered, decade after decade. It’s here that he went on to film Mobutu, Roi du Zaïre, Congo River [+see also:
film profile], Katanga Business [+see also:
film profile] and, in 2016, The Man Who Mends Women: The Wrath of Hippocrates [+see also:
film profile], a movie which placed him in the path of a man who would change his view of the Congo: Doctor Mukwege.
The latter fights for the violence meted out against women to be recognised as a war crime, and he succeeds. In 2018 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his actions. This travelling companion delivers a warning to the filmmaker: they might have helped lend a voice to the country’s victims with their first film, but now it’s time to denounce their torturers whose names are known to all but are only uttered in private. It’s also time to put an end to impunity. And so, in his new documentary Empire of Silence [+see also:
interview: Thierry Michel
film profile] - which hits Belgian cinemas on Wednesday 19 January, distributed by Cinéart - Thierry Michel returns to the Congo with the aim of alerting the international community to this dire situation, lending a voice to the scores of victims hiding deep in the forest and bringing down this empire of silence.
The film follows the course of history - a limping and repetitive history. A history which begins in 1994 following the Rwandan conflict, when genocidal groups sought refuge in the Congo and melded together with the displaced civilian population on the other side of the border. The Congolese tragedy unfolds, a succession of massacres which gradually extend across the country, punctuated by long lines of refugees; populations driven out by conflict, first at the hands of foreign powers and later perpetuated by Congolese rebels and soldiers. The succession of massacres and the complaisance of anyone and everyone who happened to be in power is nothing short of dizzying. The film foregrounds the way in which former criminal militiamen infiltrated the army; there’s even a name for it: brassage. Corruption and indifference abounded on a national scale.
But the film also looks to highlight the inertia of the international community in the face of such horror. Witness upon witness have come forward over the years. The UN has established a special peacekeeping force, a fairly ironic term considering the permanent state of war in which the country finds itself. In addition to the ineffectualness of the UN’s soldiers, we learn of the scandalous Mapping Report which lists the massacres and names of each individual criminal but lies "rotting in a drawer", in the words of Doctor Mukwege.
A documentary in the first person, Empire of Silence travels all over the Congo, both in time and space, charting the scene of a tragedy with Shakespearian overtones and introducing its spectres and puppets. It stands out for its shocking images, archive footage gathered and harvested by the director himself, which casts a light on the unimaginable. The film acts as a memorial and serves to fuel rebellion, with the aim of raising awareness and putting an end to impunity.
(Translated from French)
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