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Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death.

2003. An International co-production between Belgium, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK.  92 min.

Written and directed by Peter Bate.

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”  – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

Looking at all the people, periods or places that a documentary filmmaker could choose for a subject, why is the History Channel’s Friday night line-up nearly always a tribute to the American Civil War, penguins, or Hitler?  This disconnect between the potential of film to educate with what is readily available to a mass audience leaves us with a much poorer public discourse.  However, it is often enough, (though not nearly enough) that I come across a documentary that is not only creative and engaging, but actually informative.  Such is the case with Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, which shines a light on a tragic and little-known chapter of history which saw the first global human rights campaign defy and eventually disgrace a crowned king of Europe.

congo2Even though 19th century Imperialism presents historians with far too many horrific examples to choose from, the Congo Free State between 1885 -1908 has become a standard by which they can measure cruelty and exploitation.  The personal property of Leopold II, king of the Belgians, the Congo was turned into a massive labour camp that ruthlessly harvested rich deposits of rubber and ivory at any cost.  Leopold, a victim of “the dreams of men,…the germs of empires” took a territory dozens of times the size of his own country as a short-cut to international prestige and personal riches, and though historians still debate over the exact number of millions that perished, the general consensus is that in three decades, the Free State saw its population reduced by over half due to overwork or the outright murder of those who did not perform their tasks properly for their new CEO.  A disturbingly common form of punishment, especially against children, was the severing of hands, a practice distressingly familiar in the Africa of our own supposedly more humanitarian time.

The plight of the Congo was adopted as a cause celebre amongst missionaries, intellectuals and activists that became hard to ignore, harder to deny, and eventually, impossible to resist. This movement coalesced into a world wide humanitarian movement that uncovered and publicized the crimes of the regime, and ultimately forced the Belgian government to intervene. After 1908, the Free State was abolished, and The Belgian Congo was administered as a national colony. For the Congolese, who were not consulted at any stage of the process, this only meant the difference between living under a murderous tyranny and a more moderate form of servitude.   Leopold II himself exited the international stage an international pariah, with calls for his hanging at the newly minted World Court in The Hague.  When he died in 1909 his resentful subjects booed and jeered the funeral procession of their former king, who died one of the most hated men in Europe.

Director Peter Bate skillfully uses archival material and contemporary accounts, as well as location shooting and interviews with European and African scholars to tell the story of the Free State.  Bate also borrows generously from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella that drew directly from Conrad’s experience as a Congo River steamship captain.  The possibility of overwhelming an audience in a deluge of facts is deftly avoided as the film is framed by a fictional “re-enacted” trial of Leopold II himself, a device that anchors the investigation to the personality of the king and his critics.  And it is flourishes like this that move Congo beyond clinical reportage; it’s prose, as well as it’s sad poetry that make it all the more effective and haunting.  In one powerful scene, a Congolese historian visits present-day Antwerp, a major port involved in the rubber trade.  While in a chocolate shop he arranges sweet treats that are in the shape of little hands and alludes to the brutal practices such as mutilation and dismemberment that were an essential part of a system of exploitation that made Antwerp and Belgium rich. This row of little dismembered brown hands stare back at him, representing in stark visual terms a “human balance sheet” that is all the more troubling because in this quaint shop, in a town built on a diabolical trade, not one person in a hundred could appreciate the disturbing irony of this scene .

congo3This national amnesia is a result of a well orchestrated campaign that began decades after Leopold’s death when huge deposits of mineral wealth were discovered in the Belgian Congo.  As the colony took an even more prominent role in the Belgian economy, the image of the colony’s founder had to be recast as a benevolent monarch with a humanitarian mission for Africa.  It is on this point that Bate does not even attempt to spare any venomous scorn, the cover-up presented as nothing less than a conspiracy to erase Leopold’s crimes it from public memory, a wrong on par with the original atrocities.  It is this unyielding tone that has attracted some of the most consistent criticism of the film, with the Belgian government itself officially decrying it as a “tendentious diatribe” and several reviewers criticizing Bate’s less than “dispassionate” approach to the subject matter.  However this ignores the fact that the most incendiary indictments against Leopold are from his contemporaries, the men and women who bore witness to, and vigorously took action against naked inhumanity.  In the face of which no tone other than total seething rage was appropriate.

The strengths of Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death should make it the definitive film on the subject for some time to come.  That it took so long for a definitive work to be made about a tragedy on this scale when our mediascape is full of 24 hour news channels with a glut of documentary and educational material, is discouraging.  When an experience such as in the Free State can be nearly ejected into a memory hole we are collectively deprived of history’s lessons and become less prepared for when new challenges arise.  Even in my own lifetime, we seem not to have learned too much, with newer genocides such as in Rwanda and Darfur rendering the 20th century’s vow “Never Again” from a moral imperative into an empty catch phrase.

Derek Gladu

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