The streets of Kinshasa are alive with the sound of music in Benda Bilili!, an unabashed crowd-pleaser that tracks the inspiring journey of a tight, hard-working ensemble that once slept on sheets of cardboard and, today, is dazzling audiences in Europe with its world-class grooves.
The first documentary to open the Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight, Benda Bilili! is a spinoff from Jupiter's Dance, a rambling 2006 TV doc showcasing ghetto music in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. It's easy to understand why, for both visual and sonic reasons, French co-directors Renaud Barret (a former ad director) and Florent de la Tullaye (a former photojournalist) decided to focus longer on the ensemble known as Staff Benda Bilili – much longer, as explained in the sparse voice-over narration, than they ever imagined.
"Benda Bilili" roughly translates as "beyond appearances," an apt title. Staff Benda Bilili's core is four eloquent greying musicians, all paraplegic polio survivors with solid practical skills (sewing, electronics, welding), substantial chops, electrifying stage presence and songwriting that rivals anything old or new you can download from iTunes.
These guys definitely know how to roll. They transport themselves and their guitars on custom three-wheelers, assisted by a cacophony of attentive street kids keen to make a living without resorting to "combing," the term one boy uses to describe pickpocketing in the film's vibrant opening sequence. Their favoured rehearsal space is the Kinshasa zoo. With its rusty cages, emaciated animals and seeming lack of keepers let alone patrons, it's an evocative place to practice – the camera capturing the background action of local thugs who also exploit the quiet setting.
Ricky, the ensemble's dapper leader and benevolent godfather of the local centre for the physically disabled, has a silver tongue, a heart of gold and an iron will. Early on he appeals to the filmmakers – if the group's music reaches European ears he and his mates will make enough money to support their immediate families and extended clan of street kids.
The filmmakers, who include scenes filmed as early as 2004, are compelled to help out. Belgian producer and Congolese-music specialist Vincent Kenis is also in the frame. While the role of the group's European friends is made clear, the focus remains on the players. The filmmakers' most significant contribution is introducing the group to 13-year-old street kid Roger, who has built his own satonge, a one-string instrument he plays with a soulful virtuosity that becomes the signature solo break of every song.
The directors' statement says Benda Bilili! is not a musical film, and that the songs are "only complementary to the narrative." I beg to differ. The song lyrics, translated in subtitles, reveal very specific realities of the players' day-to-day lives and are essential to the narrative. Benda Belili! reminds us that we need to look beyond The X Factor to discover musical talent that strikes a deeper chord.
Benda Bilili! opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Oct. 14.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye
- (In Lingala and French, with English subtitles)
- Classification: NA