“Until the lions have their own historians,” Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe said, “the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This quote, which opens writer-director Kristof Bilsen’s Elephant’s Dream, proves remarkably apt for the film itself. Highly poetic, deeply insightful and offering a fresh perspective on an African nation, this engaging documentary shines a glorifying and lionising light on the hard working ordinary people of DR Congo amidst trying circumstances.
A post office where there is no post. A train station where there are no trains. A fire station that has burnt down. These failing institutions in the Democratic Republic of Congo stand for the state of the nation. Through the eyes of post office clerk Henriette, rail guards Simon and Nzai and the fire fighters of Kinshasa’s only working firehouse, we witness the day-to-day lives, struggles and gradual improvements in a country slowly getting back on its feet.
The decision to follow ordinary citizens often overlooked by history makes for a laudable, accessible documentary. Eschewing political judgements about Congo’s situation or becoming mired in the nation’s complex history, it is instead a universal human story. Simon and Nzai complain about their bosses or pine for new jobs, Henriette argues for better shifts. The quiet determination and hope the workers display in dealing with their daily trials is uplifting and humbling. There are no traces of colonialist condescension or patronising paternalist attitudes from the filmmakers. Here only the language is foreign; the subjects’ thoughts, behaviours and actions are entirely understandable.
Not that Elephant’s Dream shirks away from Congo’s difficulties. Instead it hints at them through its ground’s eye view, allowing audiences to infer the nation’s wider problems. Workers only receive 10% of wages from two years before, whilst the fire department are paid only in bread and tea. The extensive road works by Chinese contractors cause transport chaos, and the growing privatisation of state holdings suggest there is plenty of money to be made in DR Congo, but not necessarily by its workers. In a country whose past includes colonisation by an empire, the suggestion of economic colonisation, exploitation of its resources and corruption remains present in the background.
But it is in its poetic approach that makes the documentary truly special. The lyrical editing and layered voice over impart the film with a dream-like atmosphere, contributing to a sometimes surreal, almost absurdist feel. Henriette being asked “Does the Post Office really exist?” and the guards admonishing students for crossing in front of non-existent trains lend proceedings a sense of the Kafkaesque. Beautifully shot by the director, Bilsen’s lens offers the lush greens of the Congolese countryside and the colourful, vibrant, somewhat chaotic Kinshasa. This all combines for a unique cinematic vision that challenges audience preconceptions about life in Africa and whose impact goes far beyond its rather slight runtime. Until lions have their own historians, Elephant’s Dream will be impossible to forget.
Elephant’s Dream will premiere in the UK on Saturday 4th July as part of the East End Film Festival.