The African experience on film: Whose story is it to tell — and what aren't we seeing?
The Filmmakers guest panellist Rachel Mutombo considers representation in Kim Nguyen's 'Rebelle'
This is part of a series of essays by panellists featured on the new CBC Arts talk show The Filmmakers. A panellist from each episode writes about the film being featured this week, which this week is writer and actor Rachel Mutombo discussing Kim Nguyen's Rebelle (War Witch). You can watch Mutombo alongside film critic Marc-André Lussier and musician, activist and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal on the full panel here.
Last year, I needed a morning off from work in order to pick up my father from the airport. Out of curiosity, my boss asked me where he had gone. I smiled and told her he had gone back to Congo to visit family for a couple of weeks.
She looked at me aghast and asked, "He was in Congo? Isn't it dangerous?"
I was genuinely surprised by her question. For as long as I can remember, my parents have made a point to go back home and visit family as often as they can. "No, it's fine," I replied simply. "He was on vacation." I reflected on the interaction for a long time afterwards, and I still think about it now. I don't blame her for making the assumption that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still a country at war. It is, but there is far more to it than that.
When I think of the way I have seen Africa depicted in Western media, I completely understand where her questions came from. If I had not grown up in a household with siblings and parents who were born in the DRC, I think my perception of Africa would be skewed as well. Africa is not perfect by any means, but that continent is far more than Western culture acknowledges: the luscious savannahs, the vibrant wildlife, the humility and kindness of the people. These are the things we don't see when we turn on our televisions.
So as I watched Kim Nguyen's Rebelle (War Witch), I couldn't help but feel a tinge of disappointment. Are these the only stories Canadians will ever get to see of the beautiful country that my family is from? Although it was not specified in the film, the characters all spoke Lingala, and to me were easily recognizable as the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the lack of specificity meant the story could have been transplanted into any African country. And though the cinematographic beauty of the film captivated me, I could not help but be saddened by another narrative of African despair.
Then there is that ever so delicate line between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing. It comes down to the lens through which we view the story. Are we empathizing or sympathizing with the characters? Despite Rebelle (War Witch) being a story about a courageous young African woman, it was unbalanced as the gaze of the camera was coming from a place of privilege. Though it is Komona's story that we are watching, ultimately, it is filtered by Kim Nguyen's gaze as the director and writer. The female experience in the film is very isolated. Komona is the only female character of substance, and therefore the only perspective of the female experience in Africa that the audience is given. Throughout the film, we don't see women in any positions of power — only women being silenced at the hands of men.
I hope to see more films that allow the rest of the world to experience African culture the way I did when I listened to the stories my mother would tell me before bed.- Rachel Mutombo, writer and actress
The continent of Africa is a treasure that has been incessantly exploited by the Western world. There is an unfortunate history of Africa's treasures being stolen for the profit of others: our resources, our people and our stories. As a continent, Africa is so rich in diverse cultures from region to region. I would love nothing more than for this side of the world to get to see Africa in a different light now. No longer Africa the savage, the poor and the violent. I hope to see more films that allow the rest of the world to experience African culture the way I did when I listened to the stories my mother would tell me before bed. I could close my eyes and imagine the unending glow of the Congolese horizon. Though I was born here, I had the privilege of growing up in a house filled to the brim with Congolese culture. The African experience was normalized and never sensationalized. So for me, Africa has never been the "other" — and I long for the day that Western media truly appreciates her worth.
Watch The Filmmakers this Saturday at 8:30pm (9pm NT) on CBC Television or online at cbc.ca/watch.