Saturday, October 16, 2010

Kinshasa Symphony

My whole life "documentary" had a negative, boring connotation in my mind. I'm not sure why. I strongly prefer nonfiction books, after all, and come to think of it, all of the best movies I've seen recently have been documentaries. (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Grizzly Man, Man On Wire, and now Kinshasa Symphony.)

It isn't even about preferring to learn something about the real world by hearing a true story, or by the default increased plausibility of a true story, as is the case with books. On film, especially films whose topics are chosen based on the emotional intensity of the story, sincerity is crucial and impossible to write or fake. If I'd read Grizzly Man as book, I'd have though that guy was a nut and hurting his cause more than he was helping, and wouldn't have cared much about his story. But when, on screen, his voice cracks as he talks about his killed fox companion or he rages against the national forest bureaucracy trying to stop him or his eyes show how simply overcome he is by love of those animals, the story lodged itself in my memory in a way no actors or invented words could compete with.

Anyway, Kinshasa Symphony is an amazing movie about a group of amateur musicians in one of the most chaotic and poor cities in the world learning Beethoven and Bolero with homemade instruments or violins strung with old bicycle brake wires. I'm crossing my fingers that it'll be available on netflix; if so, definitely see it. For now it's only being shown in a couple film festivals, but the slideshow and news article about it here is almost as good.

Of course the story is phenomenal, but maybe more important is that it's the perfect context to convey the struggle of living in Kinshasa to Westerners. I'm sure Congolese musicians of all genres face the same obstacles (except the lack of peer respect), not to mention anything else that they fight for on a daily basis, but Americans and Europeans understand what goes into performing Carmina Burana better than those other things. And beyond the technical know-how, it's simply easier to empathize with a familiar culture. This kind of film may be better for raising concern for Congolese than any reports of mass murder, perpetual civil war, or rape and plunder.

I hope it's mass-released. Movies like Hotel Rwanda lose out to romantic comedies because we intellectually want to see them, but not hedonistically. The same doesn't apply to a beautiful, uplifting, even funny, story like Kinshasa Symphony.

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