Sunday, 4 March 2012

Benda Bilili!

Staff Benda Bilili were a sensational hit at international music festival WOMAD in 2010 and have scooped up world music prizes at festivals and shows across Europe. But their success did not come easily. Benda Bilili! charts their remarkable journey from homelessness on the streets of Kinshasa, Congo to the release of their first album and subsequent tour. What makes their journey still more remarkable is that the majority of the group are paraplegic.

Renault Barret and Florent de La Tullaye’s documentary charts the journey taken by the group from their rehearsals in Kinshasa zoo through the making of their album Tres Tres Fort, the recruitment of charismatic frontman Roger and their journey through Europe.

Originally conceived as a video-blog to accompany the record, the various setbacks and crisis’s which beset the project meant that the increasingly dramatic narrative and charismatic cast of characters demanded it be turned into a feature length release…

The film opens with the group living a hand-to-mouth existence in a cramped and ramshackle shelter. Struck with polio, many of them are crippled from the waist down: their withered limbs hang limp beneath their bodies. It’s immediately apparent, however, that their physical disabilities will not handicap them: the opening scene is a joyous dance by a smiling man carrying all his weight on his flip-flop clad hands. It’s an energetic opening and a masterful piece of editing – the audience is informed from the outset that this is a documentary which will see obstacles overcome by an inspiring cast.

Chief among these is Papa Ricky, band leader and surrogate father. He’s a thoroughly engaging presence. Gentle and sweet voiced, yet cynical and hard edged. His devotion to his band is absolute – at various points he puts them ahead of his family – but only as he sees the group as offering hope and salvation to so many. His family will hopefully benefit, too, from the ‘dough’ which eventually rolls in through royalties. He’s afforded respect by all those around him – perhaps due to the protective net he casts around those closest to him. When he is crossed by a ‘villager’ who stares at the camera crew, they are given a fearful tongue lashing. It’s a powerful and unexpected display of his personality and one the camera crew would have been delighted to have captured.

Despite the fatherly affections of Ricky, it’s clear that the members of Staff Benda Bilili are more than capable of self-sufficiency. Hand-pedalling around Kinshasa on their modified tricycles, they look like distant cousins of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Riders. Their resilience and ability to find joy in their difficult lives is truly inspirational. A wonderful illustration of this occurs at a ‘football’ match played between fellow polio sufferers. Unable to use their legs, they slalom around the dusty pitch on their hands, colliding at speed with one another yet demonstrating enormous skill. When a goal is scored with an acrobatic flying volley, a spontaneous pitch invasion occurs. It’s a lovely moment, as daily hardship is forgotten in an outpouring of unbridled joy.

In the main, Barret and de La Tullaye’s style is to remain as invisible as possible. They stay away from the action and offer little in the way of exposition. A brief voiceover explains their role as facilitators and financers, but, otherwise, they are not seen or heard. This hands-off approach serves the piece very well, as the inhabitants of Kinshasa are more than capable of making their thoughts and feelings known – and the action is more than capable of speaking for itself.

The directors do, sadly, take a couple of wrong turns. There are two scenes in the documentary which feel rather contrived. The first, a discussion of religion and the role of Adam and Eve in the creation of sin seems unlikely between the teenage protagonists and has a whiff of political agenda about it. Still more staged is a conversation between two youngsters about Europe. Although it contains some poetic ideas and imagery – not least comparing being stuck in Congo with being like caged birds – it jars badly. The film makes its point extremely eloquently without needing to resort to cheap (and obvious) fakery like this.

Letting the action speaks for itself certainly serves Barret and de La Tullaye well in the film’s most poignant scene. With the band away from home recording their album, their shelter burns to the ground. Nothing can be saved. Letting the stark truth linger as they record a phone-call between Ricky and his wife is understated filmmaking at its best. And Ricky’s stoic reaction is typical of a man with an utter conviction in the redemptive power of the music he creates.

The only other character who can rival Ricky in the charisma stakes is Roger. Discovered aged 12, he grows up on screen over the course of the five years it took to film Benda Bilili! and his journey is the most remarkable of all. He was discovered by the directors playing his santonge: an instrument devised by Roger himself, consisting of an empty tin can, a wooden handle and a guitar string. It’s capable of an amazing range of tones and Roger is a virtuoso at playing it. Charting Roger’s adolescence is arguably the filmmaker’s greatest achievement. The only time they refer back to the past is when they cut a scene of the 12-year-old Roger into later footage. It’s a brilliantly effective way of showing exactly how far he’s come from precocious child to Hendrix-aping frontman.

Having being filmed over such a long period of time, it’s possible to see and hear the maturing of Staff Benda Bilili very clearly. As well as Roger growing up in front of the camera, the band’s music improves noticeably over the length of the documentary. Their hilarious, perennially stoned and thoroughly uplifting journey into the unknown world of Europe is wonderfully documented and punctuated by powerful and polished performances in front of adoring crowds – and the Argentinean ambassador.

Benda Bilili! is a thoroughly uplifting documentary about an inspirational group of people who’ve transcended disability, poverty and hardship to triumph against the odds. It’s telling that this charismatic and charming group grabbed the attention of the directors from the outset and practically forced them to make this wonderful film. Filled with brilliant music and colourful characters, it’s a remarkable, life-affirming and uplifting.

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