“The screenplay for Kinshasa Kids was born out of a kaleidoscope of different lives.” These words, by the Belgian film director Marc-Henri Wainberg, say a lot about this movie. It won the Council of Europe’s prize for human rights, and can be described as an attempt to provide an insight into Kinshasa’s street life through music and pictures.
Halfway between drama and documentary, Kinshasa kids focuses on the so-called shegués (a nickname widely believed to come from Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara), the children living on the street of the Congolese capital city. Their number, some estimate, amounts to 25,000.
The plot starts with the story of a street kid, Jose, whose stepmother believes he is a child-sorcerer. To escape the brutal ritual he should face to be ‘healed’ (the opening scene depicts an ‘exorcism’), Jose flees. On the streets of Kinshasa he meets a shegué gang. He is first rejected and then accepted by the youngsters. The camera follows the newly formed group of eight through the city and shows them sleeping on cardboards, trying to make a living by stealing from local people or running a shoeshine box, getting caught by corrupt policemen who only let them go for money.
A major turning point for them is the encounter with a bizarre rapper, Bebson de la Rue. The artist (who is portrayed by a real street musician, Bebson Elemba) encourages them to follow their dreams. They want to form a band, called Diable Aza Te, The devil does not exist. Even if Bebson doesn’t fulfil all his promises, the kids don’t give up, continuing their attempt to defy a destiny of marginalisation and to assume full control of their lives.
Rehearsals, concerts, and other performances provide an occasion for musical interludes, adding a new dimension to the movie, whose story – though based on real life accounts – is fictional. Notwithstanding, it is shot in a sort of handheld style, making it seem a documentary. Together with the choice of focusing on more than one protagonist, this is a way for Wainberg to go beyond the film’s somehow predictable plot to give a lively, quasi-sociological, account of life in Congo’s capital. This is also made possible by the actors themselves: all the children featuring in the film are from the same Kinshasa streets in which the movie is shot. This too was a big challenge for the director and his crew – the little boys and girls did not know each other beforehand. However, as the filmmaker hoped, they quickly managed to form a tight-knit group and to work together.
Since some of the kids continued living together after filming ended, their experience can actually be considered a concrete example of the film’s message conveyed: music – and art in general – can be a means to regain things lost, a road to freedom and self-fulfilment. This proved to be particularly true for one of the girls, Rachel. When Wainberg met her, she was a 12-year-old living in extreme poverty, resorting to various kinds of illegal activities to survive. After shooting Kinshasa kids, the Canadian director and screenwriter Kim Nguyen noticed her, and she finally won a Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2012 Berlin Festival, for her performance in the film Rebelle, becoming a role model for her peers.
Bebson and his band, in turn, thanks to the film, found the chance to record a new album, Groupe Electrogène. If a flaw is to be found in the movie, it lies in the manner of dealing with its message: music is seen in a highly symbolic way, something which has the potential to create ties between individuals in a shattered society. A clear example of this is – for instance – in these words of Bebson, “When you experience music, you are one. Its rhythm is the rhythm of friendship.” This view, like the entire plot, closely reminds of the old stereotype linking the African continent – and its people – to music.
On the other hand, Kinshasa kids deserves credit for one undeniable reason: the existence and the living conditions of the shegués – as those of many marginalized Africans – are almost unknown to the general public. Since the movie has been widely circulated in film festivals the globe over (it premiered at the Venice Days in 2012, before going to Toronto, the NYFF, the London and Mumbai festivals), the street children of the Congolese capital city might benefit from it – at least indirectly. (D.M.)