Film Film Reviews

Makala: An Epic Documentary about an Epic Pilgrimage


MAKALA is as tender a documentary as you will view next year – when it goes out on general release in February.

Directed by Emmanuel Gras, and previewed at the BFI London Film Festival, it shows the hazardous journey a young Congolese father must make in order to provide for his family.

A tortuous mission where he is at the mercy of the elements, villains (who wish to extract money from him before he can continue his journey) unrelenting traffic and ultimately customers who want to pay as little as possible for his wares. Despite all the tribulations, the spirit of Kabwita Kasongo, maintained by his faith and belief in God, remains unbroken.

In short this is as beautiful a documentary about human resilience as you will ever wish to see.

‘I was in Congo doing a film on the Chinese building roads,’ said Gras after the screening.

‘I spent all day out on the road and witnessed these men carrying stuff. They were charcoal makers. I asked questions about them and thought I should follow one of these men on his journey into the city and show the value of all his efforts.’ Makala was born (in Swahili, Makala means charcoal).

The film starts with Kabwita travelling from his village (Walemba) on foot to cut down an enormous tree with just a machete, his strength and faith to help him. He then laboriously goes about making  charcoal from the wood he has cut down, which he then carefully bags up.

His epic journey, which  starts at night, then begins – a 50 kilometre trip with his bags of charcoal tied to a battered bike (one of his few possessions) which he pushes and steers with the use of a tree branch he has tied to the handlebars.

It is a painfully slow journey with just water and a little fruit to sustain him. On occasion he struggles to get up inclines. A few times people help him on his way with a kind push of the bike. He walks through the bush as well as on the road. The landscape is often barren, scarred by open mine pits.

Despite the relentless traffic which kicks up dust and comes dangerously close to him, Kabwita struggles on. Three nights on the road. It is like a pilgrimage. He often sleeps sitting up by the roadside and in one horrible moment, his bike, propped up by a piece of wood, is knocked down by a passing truck. Charcoal spills from the bags.  Only the kindness of passers-by enable him to carry on, albeit with a flat tyre.

Before his journey’s end, he is forced to relinquish a bag of charcoal by a vigilante who says he will not be allowed to continue his journey otherwise. ‘You must pay 2.000 francs for your charcoal,’ the vigilante says. ‘Leave a bag and I will call it quits. If you don’t pay, you stay here.’

‘Take pity on me, brother,’ replies Kabwita. ‘The bag you take is my profit.’ He eventually relents, handing over a bag of his precious charcoal.

His tribulations are not over. Arriving in the city, he then has to barter with locals who want to buy his charcoal as cheaply as possible. ‘Give us a discount, give us a good price. I won’t buy it if there is any dust on it.’ One woman accuses him of ‘hitting on her’. He tries to sell his bags for 3,500 francs (£1 equals just over 2,000 francs) but he is constantly bartered down. ‘Sell and go back to your kids’.


The film ends with Kabwita joining in prayer where the preacher talks of the ‘journey of the honest man’ – how relevant. ‘My God, I need your presence in my life,’ says Kabwita.
‘Come to my rescue. Protect me from accidents.’

‘Religion is very important to him,’ said Gras. ‘It is part of his universe.’

Makala is a moving and intimate documentary. There are times when you wonder how authentic it is – for example would the vigilante really allow himself to be filmed demanding a payment from Kabwita? – but Gras was helped in his filming by a respected Congolese journalist who smoothed out any potential issues . ‘My work was not to help him [Kabwita] when he had a problem,’ he said. ‘He was working, I was working.’

Kabwita comes over as an intelligent human being who has aspirations – he wants to build a home for his wife Lydie and his three children, one of which (Divine) lives with Lydie’s sister in town (he visits her on his charcoal journey, leaving Divine – who he does not see – a pair of sparkly shoes).

The film is also not without its tender moments  as when Lydie removes a splinter from Kabwita’s toe. Kabwita grimaces as if he has just suffered an amputation. And when Kabwita pictures the house he wants to build, complete with three bedrooms.

Despite the abject poverty – at one stage we see Lydie cooking a rat – this is a story about a remarkable individual who will risk his life for his family. Someone who refuses to be beaten despite the scant financial  rewards on offer.

It is a story of hope. Triumph over adversity. Watch it and realise how lucky you are.
One final comment. After the shooting of the documentary, Gras helped Kabwita fulfil his dream of owning his own home – complete with mango and palm trees.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!
Director: Emmanuel Gras
Sound: Manuel Vidal
Producer: Nicolas Anthome

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