Featured Stories

Illuminating the Crisis in This is Congo

The UC Davis Humanities Institute and Human Rights Studies Program, in partnership with Human Rights Watch (HRW), inaugurated the Human Rights Film Festival in fall 2017. During this three-day event, HRW films are shown to the community, and filmmakers and scholars answer audience questions about pressing human rights issues.

The 2018 Human Rights Film Festival opened on November 2nd with This is Congo, director Daniel McCabe’s first documentary. The film explores the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Central African nation mired in conflict-related violence, instability and multiple regime changes. As a photojournalist in East Africa, McCabe became frustrated with the tools he had and began searching for new methods of storytelling. He was drawn to Congo’s “intense beauty and contrast of violence,” as well as the “resilience of the people.”

This is Congo follows four individuals to illuminate the conflict: whistleblower Colonel “Kasongo,” military commander Mamadou Ndala, mineral dealer Mama Romance and tailor Hakiza Nyantaba. It begins in 2012 when rebels under the auspices of M23 begin building up their forces in the North. Rebel groups, including M23, are often backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, exacerbating the conflict. President Joseph Kabila’s corrupt regime add fuel to the rebel’s fire; many in their ranks began as soldiers in Congo’s army, but leave due to poor pay and governance.

The film then follows the intensification of violence and its impact on the Congolese people, and it concludes three years later at the conflict’s end. Throughout, McCabe focuses on the experiences of the Congolese while contextualizing the legacies of colonialism and exploitation that laid the groundwork for contemporary Congo. With President Kabila cancelling elections in 2016 to circumvent term limits, violence will likely erupt again, feeding upon the unresolved issues plaguing the nation.

This is Congo reveals how those who are meant to protect the people and nation often do the most damage. McCabe emphasizes corrupt governance as the most pronounced problem. Because the film hoped to untangle the causes of conflict in Congo, he worked to gain access to army personnel, a difficult but ultimately fruitful task. He encountered Mamadou, a young, charismatic and naive commander who believed deeply in his cause and government. Mamadou was assassinated by his own side only three weeks after the conflict’s end and buried in an unmarked grave.

Uncovering the characters’ stories came through time. Indeed, McCabe stated that the first year and a half of footage is not in the film because the story changed as he got to know the subjects. Over time, they stopped paying attention to the camera crew–which may have been easier as it consisted only of McCabe–and spoke their truths. Rather than place a “Western talking head” at the forefront, the film unfolded directly through Congolese experiences.

McCabe also wanted the Congolese to describe their nation’s historical context in order to connect the dots between contemporary issues and the past. What he discovered, however, is most people “did not have a firm grasp of the history.” Whistleblower Colonel Kasongo provided the necessary puzzle piece, offering insight into Congo’s colonial history and beyond. Although he was meant to be an untrustworthy narrator–he is a high-ranking intelligence agent who moved back and forth between the army and rebel groups–”everything he said is accurate” and vetted. The reality of the Congo, though, is a nation where trust has been removed. By offering an untrustworthy narrator, McCabe tried to give viewers that same feeling of instability.

Instability extends to how the Congolese survive in the crucible of war. While the term smuggler inspires nefarious images, mineral dealer Mama Romance was the “most relatable character in the film.” Resource exploitation results in the enrichment of President Kabila’s regime and nations like the US, while average Congolese languish. Mama Romance’s refusal to submit to depredation, instead smuggling minerals across the border to sell, represents an image of a parent doing what they need to for their family. Hakiza Nyantaba offers a similar story of survival, carrying his dilapidated sewing machine across seven Internally Displaced Persons camps, as it is the only means to provide for his children.

By illuminating the conflict in Congo, McCabe hopes viewers “identify with people on the ground.” Moreover, current discussions of the crisis require more information and nuance, and this film intends to “slightly demystify” it. Mainstream media sources are unable to fully articulate the conflict with their short sound bites. This is Congo provides a “tool kit” to enter the conversation, to “dig deeper,” to acknowledge history, to examine contemporary failures and, most important, to elevate the voices of the Congolese.

–Ashley Serpa, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and PhD Candidate in History

This page was last updated: November 5, 2018



 All content © 2019 UC Regents. All rights reserved.


227 Voorhies Hall
One Shields Ave
Davis CA 95616
P: (530) 752-1254

Subscribe to our mailing list

Humanities Institute