Interview Dieudo Hamadi

"I present history, as it happens."

Film still: Downstream to Kinshasa, dir. Dieudo Hamadi (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

“In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s difficult for young people to develop artistically. There are few opportunities for filmmakers and writers to showcase their work – even musicians hardly earn enough to get by. This is why I feel privileged that I have been able to make documentaries for many years now. But I am also just a regular guy. I speak the language of the poor. I recognise their living conditions; I am one of the people. This makes it natural for me to depict their lives.”

Dieudo Hamadi does not refer to himself as an activist, and doesn’t particularly relate to the term ‘socially committed’. Nevertheless, his films are indisputably political and, as he himself admits, “neutrality is not an option”. “I present history, as it happens. But it is the bottom-up version of history.”

Hamadi cites Raymond Depardon as a great example and source of inspiration. “Because he is able to tackle complex issues through simple stories.” In his first feature-length documentary, Atalaku (2013), Hamadi presents the Congolese election campaign from the inside out. In National Diploma (2014), he reveals poverty, corruption and inequality by following pupils who have been excluded from school as they are unable to pay the salaries of their teachers. And in Mama Colonel (2017), he puts the abuse of women and children in the spotlight by portraying the head of a special police unit.

“I met Christian, Ben and Jean-Marie while shooting Mama Colonel – they became the protagonists of Downstream to Kinshasa. They had set up an organisation to help victims of the civil war that raged through North-eastern Congo in 2000. They were promised compensation, but eighteen years later they still hadn’t seen a penny.

I spent two years following them, and when they decided to go to the capital to protest against the inactive government and the president, who was trying to illegally cling on to power, I decided to go with them.” Working in a poor, badly functioning country, Hamadi is used to obstacles, whether practical or bureaucratic, but even he describes this journey – part of which was by boat – as really problematic. “Not everyone was happy about being in shot, so I could only film using my iPhone, and even then only from certain angles. Also, the boat was really overloaded and when the weather turned, it got really dangerous.”

Like all of Hamadi’s films, much of Downstream to Kinshasa is filmed in a cinéma vérité style. “But this is the first time I have added theatrical scenes. I needed to do this as I wanted to get the victims to talk about their pasts, and also present this visually. In addition, I wanted to show these stories in several ways, in two different dimensions, giving an extra layer of confirmation to reality.”

The powerful result brought Hamadi a series of invitations to international festivals. As well as in IDFA’s Masters Section, the film was named an Official Selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival and was screened at Toronto International Film Festival, and a theatrical release in France is planned for 2021. “I am very happy that this is giving the film a prolonged life. I hope that European audiences will see and recognise the dignity of the Congolese people and how serious their daily struggles are. But this international success is also having an effect back in my home country. People are talking about the film – even people who haven’t seen it. I hope that the stories Downstream to Kinshasa tells will become part of the image the Congolese have of themselves, and their country.”

Filmmaker Talk: New Perspectives on African-European Relations at IDFA 2020, with Dieudo Hamadi as one of the three online guest speakers. Photo by Coen Dijkstra.