This Is Congo (5 stars)

This Is Congo

Hard-hitting and essential documentary set in the titular, war-torn country

In the opening minutes of Daniel McCabe's hard-hitting documentary, his camera cowers in the grass with huddles of migrating people as deafening missiles thunder at close range over their heads. As parents protect their children, very few of the youngsters cry. Some look up with detached interest. For them, this is normal. This is life in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Snapshots of ordinary people under siege have become a mainstay of the modern documentary – from the legion of films coming out of Syria (City of Ghosts, Last Men in Aleppo), to more intimate portraits of individual hardship (This Is Home, Makala). The situation in Congo is certainly horrific on a grand scale, with the government constantly engaged in fighting myriad rebel groups and high-level corruption decimating its prospects. In focusing his camera on the key north-eastern city of Goma, McCabe's personal fly-on-the wall approach effectively distils this overwhelming situation into stories of human survival, with surprising flashes of hope.

There are no interviews with political experts, no academics or cultural scholars sharing their opinions. Instead, McCabe focuses squarely on those individuals living with this unending violence. Proud young soldier Mamadou Ndala shows off the wounds he's sustained fighting for the future of a country he still believes in. Forced from his home, 58-year-old tailor Hakiza Nyantaba arrives in a displacement camp populated by 60,000 people living in filth; having lost four children to a bomb, he must then bury his pregnant niece after she dies from illness. The wonderfully named Mama Romance risks her freedom – and her life – to smuggle minerals across the border, earning money to feed and educate her family.

'War is not new for us,' says Mama Romance matter-of-factly, and McCabe captures this endless cycle of violence – from the children who grow up full of resentment and are inspired to join rebel forces, to the outside influences bankrolling the conflict for their own ends. Often juxtaposed against Congo's stunning natural beauty, McCabe's camera plays uncomfortably close witness to events that are wretched, regularly harrowing, but demand wider attention. And amidst the tumult there are occasional chinks of light – a wedding, children playing, a family dinner – which act as a reminder that, while the situation may seem hopeless, the courage and resilience of the human spirit should never be underestimated.

Selected release from Fri 25 May.

This Is Congo

  • 5 stars
  • 2017
  • USA
  • 1h 33min
  • Directed by: Daniel McCabe
  • UK release: 25 May 2017

Hard-hitting, fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the government is constantly fighting various rebel groups. McCabe focuses on individuals living with the endless violence, focusing on stories of survival with occasional flashes of hope.