Emmanuel Gras’ new documentary, Makala, is a minimal and powerfully intimate character portrayal that transports the viewer to the Congolese countryside in what feels like another time and place. 28-year-old Kabwita remains the focus of a film split into three acts that detail the backbreaking effort he endures to provide for his family. His wife, Lydie, looks after their two young children (a third lives with a relative in town) and where possible helps her husband. The title of the film means charcoal in Swahili as that is the carbon material Kabwita produces to sell for money.
The opening shot quietly trails behind Kabwita as he makes his way down to a nearby forest area to continue chopping down a large tree, axes slung over both shoulders. Gras turns what seems like a straight forward task into something far larger and cinematic, and imbues the screen with the energy and effort that goes into every vital swing. The family have modest ambitions to sell enough charcoal to buy new metal sheeting for the roof and to build a new house on farmland large enough to sustain their way of life. When you see Lydie outside of their tiny dwellings cooking a rat nothing more needs to be said about their day-to-day existence.
After a large pile of chopped wood is cooked overnight inside a charcoal kiln made from mud, Kabwita and Lydie pack the charcoal into sacks and miraculously tie a dozen or more of them on top of an old, rusty bicycle. If you are already sweating from the work that went into producing the charcoal it pales in comparison to what our man faces next. We only learn later that the couple live in the village of Walemba once Kabwita arrives in the nearest city to sell the charcoal. 50km (30 miles) on foot, bearing the weight of his load, is the journey that lies ahead.
There is no jumping aboard the bike to reach his destination, as the sacks of charcoal take up all the room. He pushes off at night carefully guiding the bike along on his shoulder, using a wooden stick wrapped round the handlebars. Three long days and nights pass before he reaches the city, navigating hills, fields and traffic on roads raising dirt into his eyes. At one point he takes a much needed breather under the shade of a roadside tree. With trucks and cars hurtling past his bike takes a hit before tipping onto its side and the panic is his eyes is heartbreaking. Even once he arrives at the edge of the city bandits are waiting to demand 2,000 francs for a sack of charcoal in return for letting him pass through.
Once inside he has to constantly barter with locals ready to beat down his asking price at the drop of a hat. Watching this man flog himself to near exhaustion is an emotional experience as he redefines the meaning of patience, commitment and hard work. All the while his belief in God remains unbroken and the final sequence inside a small local church is a reminder of the positive role religion can play in a life of poverty.
Emmanuel Gras takes us as close as possible to the superhuman effort Kabwita puts into a round trip that takes well over a week and returns a pittance. There are moments when it feels like a fictional film and Gras' eye for a shot turns the Congolese landscape into an apocalyptic nightmare threatening to swallow up Kabwita with every step he takes. You desperately want to help this man along his route and there is no doubt it is a dilemma Gras himself must’ve confronted several times during filming. This deeply humane film puts some of our own struggles into perspective and shows that finding the will and belief to fight on is the building block on which we all stand.