YIDFF 2017 Africa Views
Congo River, Beyond Darkness
An Interview with Thierry Michel (Director)

The Filmmaker’s Strategy for Getting to the Heart of the Enemy

Q: You went ahead with the film as you were traveling up the Congo River—how did you manage filming?

TM: Filming was extremely challenging. We used public transportation like the barge, but aside from the equipment, we also had to load power generators and large quantities of drinking water. At the time, we were right in the middle of the conflicts among the government troops, the rebel army, and the paramilitary group Mai-Mai. The language was different depending on the region, and I couldn’t hire the same person in an area controlled by different powers, so I had to change my Congolese assistant 7 times. There were areas where I couldn’t take my Belgian staff, and it was impossible to film chronologically, so I made the film by piecing the footage together like a puzzle.

Q: In the latter half of the film, you enter the deeper territories of the Congo River, and the tension escalates. Was filming difficult in the area controlled by the Mai-Mai?

TM: The only ones who can enter the forest, which we filmed, are those who have become members of the Mai-Mai. Only those who have undergone a ritual of water, blood, sword, and fire can enter that organization, and learn its secrets. As you can see in the film, they justify sexual violence against women without any twinge of conscience. In order to film that, I had to be in the thick of the organization. An analogy I often use is that of “the worm in the apple.” It means to forget my own self and delve into the matter. This is a filmmaker’s strategy, and one that I have employed for 30 years in various places across the world. It’s easy to film your friend. How you film your enemy is important.

Q: But once you release a film made that way, wouldn’t you become the target of their resentment, and be unable to film under the same conditions again?

TM: I don’t think so. I think can meet with them again. This is because I haven’t betrayed their words. Twenty-five years ago, I filmed a gang that was running a drug cartel in Brazil, and I reunited with them after they were released from prison 2 years ago. A reunion with the Mai-Mai chieftain is possible. In the film, I absolutely do not judge them. It is the audience who judges what is right or wrong—I do not make that call.

Q: At the end of the film, we get a positive message about Congo’s future. Has the situation changed since the time of production (2005)?

TM: At the time, they were bound by a peace treaty, and were set to hold elections. That’s why I wanted to end the film with the hope for peace. Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated since then. The people of Congo have been betrayed by the authorities and their power struggles. The string of violence has continued over many years, and the international community is powerless in the face of it.

Q: You made this film from a foreigner’s standpoint, but can we expect films like this from the people of Congo?

TM: A number of my films have been banned in Congo, but people there have watched them through alternative means like pirated editions. There are young, emerging Congolese directors, but it would probably be difficult for them to make a film like this one. There have been many instances where I was arrested by the authorities, deported, and fought at courts of justice, but in the worst case scenario, I could always take refuge in Belgium. That is precisely why I could take such risks. If a Congolese person did this, he could seek refuge in a foreign country, but he might still endanger the family he left behind in Congo. However, in recent years, there have been many Congolese journalists who have been killed, suggesting that there are those among journalists who will take on those risks. You could say the same about those young film directors.

(Compiled by Numazawa Zenichiro)

Interviewers: Numazawa Zenichiro, Nomura Yukihiro / Interpreter: Umehara Mayumi / Translator: Joelle Tapas
Photography: Nomura Yukihiro / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2017-10-10