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Boyamba Belgique: Or Why a King Should Not Lose His Sword

by Dries Engels and Bart Van Peel, Directors
Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2011
57 mins., col. Sales, $390 US
Distributor’s website:  http://www.icarusfilms.com.

and

Berlin 1885: The Division of Africa

by Joël Calmettes
Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2011

84 mins., col. Sales, $398 US
Distributor’s website:  http://www.icarusfilms.com.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


mosher@svsu.edu

The inspiring hour-long investigation Boyamba Belgique seeks the identity of a Congolese patriot-prankster.  The day before the Congo's independence from Belgium was declared, on June 30, 1960, a man rushed up to the parade and snatched the sword from King Badouin's scabbard while the Belgian monarch reviewed his troops for one last time.  Photographer Robert Lebeck shot the event, as well as the man's arrest by Belgian colonial police.

Five decades later Flemish filmmakers Engels and Van Peel interview Lebeck to begin their search for the man's identity, soliciting help on Kinshasa radio.  Was the man in cahoots with the Congo's new President Kasavubu?  The national archivist complains that Belgium took back all their records of the colonial era, so he has nothing that can help.  The political party of independence, still active, honors the man's act but offers little information.  A name comes up, but it may be an honorific, bestowed on the man after the heroic Punk act, and one that suggests both masculine and feminine powers in balance.  But it's also the name of a town, so let's go there.  A missionary priest has another—a family—name, and the search takes them to a village seer...but the seer's eccentric story, and very different sword, shows he's not the right man, though he resembles someone in Lebeck's photos who witnessed the event.  Traditional practitioners are consulted about the interface of magic and political powers, and shortly after their intervention, a colonial record, or transcribed recollection, turns up, with the name Ambroise Boyamba.  This leads the investigators to his village, where they meet an old housemate, as well as his melancholy, mournful daughter.  We end up at the grave of Boyamba, nearly swallowed up by weeds in a graveyard largely untended for decades.

It's a grand mystery, and interesting characters—civil servants, village leaders, the self-proclaimed shaman, underpaid employees, descendants—are encountered and speak their peace in pursuit of its solution.  The one deficiency is that the font chosen for the DVD's subtitles is too small, especially for a rich historical story whose spoken content is so important.

Another offering from Icarus Films on Africa's colonial era is Berlin 1885: The Division of Africa.  Three months of negotiations between diplomats from the major European powers (and the US), meeting at Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's official residence, concluded in the carving up of the continent.  The conference is re-enacted from original transcripts.  The Congo, under Belgian rule, was created at this meeting, ostensibly as a free trade zone...but became King Leopold's private property, and administered with great cruelty.  I had a passing familiarity with the Congo's colonial history, read King Leopold's Soliloquy, Mark Twain's 1905 indictment of Belgian atrocities that included dismemberment of Africans who didn't meet their work quotas, and once attended a day-long seminar on the Royal Museum for Central African in Tervuren, near Brussels, that failed to acknowledge any colonial abuses.  Yet I had no idea that the United States representative, influenced by the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley—then in the pay of King Leopold—actively championed the plan for the Congo.  The Americans present persist in speaking English, not the meeting's agreed-upon French.

The film provides a variety of scholars—from Africa, France, Germany and the US—who offer historical background on the events we're seeing dramatized.  The dramatization in this French production by Joël Calmettes is good and believable, the conference room set accurate, and the actors convincing.  A hand-held camera that bobs between speakers at the table gives the effect of a news story unfolding before our eyes.  And again, the irksome deficiency is the subtitling, which disappears completely when it appears upon white papers strewn upon the conference table, or sparkling crystal glassware there, or white parts of antique photographs or prints.  The font is too small for comfortable viewing upon a home television too; the home and the classroom, are the likely main arenas for this film now, following theatrical and festival showings.

Finally, since the project relies on the power of actors to bring the transcripts and private correspondences of the 1885 Berlin conference to life, this is the first educational film that made me think, while watching, that it would benefit from being dubbed rather than subtitled.  When done badly, that technique is risible, yet Joël Calmettes' worthy film on a very important, insufficiently studied historical event, deserves the broader audience and classroom attention that addition may bring.


Last Updated 1 October 2012

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