Where Ignorant Armies Clash
Eleven years old now and released in Europe in 2001, Africa in Pieces: The Tragedy of the Great Lakes/L’Afrique en morceaux had not been shown here before, the English-subtitled master tapes never recovered after their theft from director Jahin el-Tahri’s home. Re-translated and –subtitled, and cited in a United Nations report on the area of the five subtitle bodies of water -- a document recently leaked by persons unknown -- it has its first-ever American showing during documentary Maysles Cinema’s second annual Congo in Harlem series.
A following panel and Q&A featured the Egyptian-French director, Canadian law specialist and member of numerous human rights tribunals Luc Côté, and UN Congo consultant Jason Stearns. Questions -- and mostly rants -- were not about the filmmaking per se but about current policies in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, about truth and reconciliation vs. eye-for-eye justice, whether processes of closure should originate in the international community or within the Congo itself, and whether the expenses of prosecution would not better serve to build a serviceable infrastructure in the war-ravaged country.
Because television’s living-room wars from Vietnam on have inured the public to genocide atrocities half-a-world away, the film wisely does not include stretches of the calculated or collateral damage inflicted on millions in the east-central continent and during the march to Kinshasa. Nor does it waste time, or lay blame, on the country’s past as personal fiefdom-victim of Belgium’s Léopold II, when that capital was Léopoldville -- a shameful chapter ably covered in Peter Bate’s Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death.
Instead, as El-Tahri indicated, the hundred minutes focuses on pivotal years 1996-98 within the advertised 1994-2000 First and Second Congo Wars. Indeed, the final consideration of the palace assassination of President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was added at the urging of French television, which broadcast the whole six days afterwards. Prior to that, and still, the director underlined, her thrust had been the rise and fall of the AFDL in Kabila’s refusal to form coalition government, a continuation of the fatal tradition of predecessors’ one-man paranoid control.
The director, author and activist in Pan African cinema has elsewhere covered three separate yet causally similar internecine wars of national liberation. Her fifteen-years-researched Cuba: An African Odyssey -- Congo Free State/Belgian Congo/Zaire/DRC; Portuguese Guinea/Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde; South West Africa/Namibia/Angola -- is so connected through Che (who dismissed Kabila for excess fondness for women and whiskey) and Castro that audiences could follow even though unversed in the nitty-gritty of people, places and events.
Although done earlier, this time around, however, the combination comes out confusing. In the latter half, admittedly, the drift grows clearer, from one coup general become autocratic corrupt president for three-and-a-half decades -- Mobutu Sese Seko né Joseph-Désiré, who imprisoned and murdered Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba--to his conquering successor and so on ad infinitum.
It is understandable that the hurriedly done subtitles are hard to read, but the many, oft-reappearing interviewees blend one into another. Not that the film’s surprising access to military and political figures is not impressive, but with so many of them discussing intricacies not widely known, the scheming becomes unfollowable, in Africa, Europe and Washington. On the ground, coincident with Operation Turquoise, the straw that breaks the festering back is the flight into east Zaire of millions of Hutus escaping Tutsi reprisals in neighbor Rwanda. Also in the country are Rwandan army units and Hutu militia accused of genocide, which leads to another Hutu stampede in which casualties are conservatively estimated at seven hundred twenty thousand, with a hundred thousand disappeared.
Flouting UN efforts, into the mix step primarily Uganda and Rwanda, but also others of the nine bordering nations plus -- hardly a surprise given history and the mineral riches of this second-largest country on the continent -- Western governments and corporations. Warlords of two hundred tribes and organized or irregular armies coalesce, separate and clash, while hitherto lightly regarded Kabila rises to become top dog and leads his Tutsi-dominated forces on to indefensible Kinshasa and, with five billion dollars, Mobutu abdicates and will die of prostate cancer three months later in Morocco.
South Africa-brokered peace negotiations an ego-trip farce – “That day I had the privilege of seeing Nelson Mandela angry” -- another and then another succeeding to the presidential scepter, corruption, runaway inflation, and misery for the population of ten million continue to this day.
For the specialist but not organized to enlighten the general public, Africa in Pieces is more a historical document of speakers and their crossed contradictory opinions.