Like a Red Rubber Ball
Using low-color recreation, a few surviving stills so amateurish as to look doctored, and an imaginative but staged static trial that never in fact occurred, BBC documentarian Peter Bate’s Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death revives the whole sorry episode of relative abuse-reform a hundred years ago in the Congo Free State-Belgian Congo- Republic of the Congo-Zaïre. It also comments, perhaps unintentionally, on Western powers and multinationals’ Third World exploitation no longer labeled “colonialism.”
In its concentration on civilized Europe’s barbarous profiteering and on the two laymen and the men of the cloth who blew conscience’s whistle, the documentary glosses over the pivotal part played on this side by Mark Twain. Aside from this omission, the film intelligently organizes its facts around voice-narration by Nick Fraser, on-camera guidance by peripatetic Paris social sciences professor Elikia M’Bokolo, some few head shots, and recreation of actions in the then-private-possession colony and of period-costumed witnesses for the prosecution against the bearded and glass-enclosed wax-figure stoical culprit-King of the Belgians.
One objects to the open statements of plan, narrational claims for what the work will set out to do and, later, for what it has accomplished. More faith in audience intelligence would have been shown, for instance, in letting words of Tervuren’s Royal Museum for Central Africa director Guido Gryseels speak for themselves: stuff about European standards of that day, a unifying vision perhaps to be disagreed with but not denied, huge financial benefits for the mother country -- shots of magnificence and monuments in Antwerp and E.U. capital Brussels -- and the present sanitization of the king’s reputation from its nadir at his unwished-for, booed state funeral in 1909.
With portraits and odd-angled equestrian statues, the film dangerously speculates on Leopold II’s unloved-childhood scars -- his mother’s sole comments about his big nose -- and disastrous arranged marriage between “a stable boy and a nun,” he being the “nun,” which produced three children who did not survive. (His reputed dissoluteness is not brought up.)
Affronts to Saxe-Coburg pride as a poor relation to bigwig royalty -- he once asked aunt Queen Victoria for sex advice -- prompted a drive for national muscle through industrialization and colonization. After scouting out Sarawak, the Philippines and other morsels, he settled on partly Arab-controlled west Africa. Aided by the explorations of, and bogus treaties negotiated by, an unmasked Sir Henry Morton Stanley, he bamboozled the 1894-5 Conference of Berlin into recognizing his cover International Association, thus converting much of the vast Congo River basin into his personal, not his nation’s, fiefdom.
John Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tire for bicycles and motor cars ignited a demand for rubber from what was then the world’s only source (90% of the area’s exports in 1901, shrunk to 1% by 1930). Through brutal slave labor unmatched until Gulag, rape, murder, terror, and a commission system for white concessionaires, together with his Benelux nation the King amassed enormous wealth, incidentally introducing the boons of Christianity and civilization.
The latter part of the film details the growing dismay of missionaries to the area, channeled and brought to public notice by shipping clerk-turned-crusader Edward Dene Morel, his English Congo Reform Association, and British consul Sir Roger David Casement (hanged in 1916 as a homosexual pro-German Irish revolutionary). Outcry at last stripped the king of “my duty to the poor Africans,” although he retained lucrative personal holdings even after Belgium annexed the country in 1908 and began to exploit it for copper, diamonds and ivory.
One assumes the actor “witnesses” read from more or less recorded testimonies. Blessed with a lack of living talking heads or reams of pictorial evidence, Congo is forced to its successfully offbeat structure. Anaesthetized by media, cinema and video games, viewers will find this particular continuing horror tame by comparison. Like its title in too unartfully laying out and summarizing theme, aim and result to be outstanding, the film is, nevertheless, quite good enough for the Belgian government to have labeled it “tendentious diatribe.”
(Released by Art Mattan Productions; not rated by MPAA.)