LFF Review: Emmanuel Gras' 'Makala' is an Exceptional Documentary
by Alex Billington
October 22, 2017
We really are living in the Golden Age of documentaries. There are so many extraordinary documentaries released every year, and too many get lost in the mix, or go unnoticed, when they deserve a better audience. There's also so many different kinds of documentaries - from music docs to political discoveries to historical stories to human experiences. Makala is a film that is all about the raw, visceral experience, and it is jaw-dropping incredible. Made by French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras, Makala follows one man from Congo (aka Democratic Republic of the Congo) who makes charcoal on his own then carries it on a bike to a nearby city to sell. That's all this documentary is, but let me assure you, it is utterly gripping, eye-opening cinema.
Makala is the Swahili word for "charcoal" - though it sounds poetic, that's all it means. This documentary has no dialogue, no talking heads, no discussion, nothing. It simply trains the camera on this one man and follows him from beginning to end - from his first steps into the nearby forest to chop down a tree, all the way to the bitter end selling his charcoal in the city for little money. As boring as that might sound, it is far from boring, in fact, it is one of the most engaging looks at humanity you can find on screen all year. There are a few moments where the man, named Kabwita Kasongo, interacts with his family and other community members. But the film is mostly about him and his work, and how hard he must work to make any money.
Thankfully Gras' camerawork in Makala is fluid and very immersive in a way that is neither distracting nor problematic. There's never a moment where it feels like he's too close or too involved with the subject, nor are there moments where it feels like anything is staged or setup. Instead, he seemingly disappears into the environment, making us forget that there even is a camera. Half the time, I kept wondering how he's getting these shots because they look so clean and clear yet here we are watching a man work his ass off to make charcoal in the middle of Africa. While we do watch Kasongo chop down a tree, it never feels like it lingers too long during any scene, and Kasongo's journey feels all the more epic because of Gras' meticulous balance of alluring camera footage and storytelling. It's an enthralling cinematic feat to experience on the big screen.
If you are wondering what's the point of showing all of this as a documentary, there is plenty to consider. Above all, Makala shows just how determined and driven humans can be. This one man silently works all day and all night, just to make enough charcoal to feed his family and keep them healthy. Immersing the audience in this life without any additional commentary allows us to gain an even greater understanding and then become even closer to Kasongo. The footage is almost so real that it feels unreal. This can't be real life, this camera can't be capturing reality, can it? Oh but it is, and that makes it all the more amazing and eye-opening to watch. Even days later I still can't get this film out of my mind, an exceptional achievement.
Alex's London 2017 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
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