How Activists Are Trying to Save What They Can of Congo

We talked to documentary filmmaker Paul Freedman about his film 'Merci Congo' in anticipation of its premiere on VICELAND.

by Sarah Bellman
08 December 2016, 6:55pm

Neema. Image courtesy of Paul Freedman

It's been over two decades since the Rwandan genocide began. While the country has vastly improved in the years following, the aftershocks have ravished its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But as the documentary Merci Congo reveals, although Congo is still fighting what's been called the "deadliest war since WWII," it's not without hope.

Premiering December 9 on VICELAND, Merci Congo profiles a wide array of activists who've dedicated their lives to helping Congo rise from the ashes of its current conflict, in which rape, murder, and corruption are at an all-time high. Although Congo is one of the richest countries in the world resource-wise—its river is expansive, and there's an abundance of minerals used to make electronics—the country remains impoverished thanks to years of abuse that began when Belgians first took power and started a pervasive trend of forced labor.

History is only repeating itself now as escaped Rwandan war lords pillage the land, leaving the Congolese despondent. However, modern Congo is taking steps to rehabilitate itself with the help of international and domestic activists who offer assistance to women who have suffered sexual abuse, those who lack education, citizens without access to clean drinking water, conflict mineral miners, and others in peril. Merci Congo hopes not only to raise awareness, but to incite its viewers to make a positive impact on the world.

We called the filmmaker Paul Freedman, who is currently working at the United Nations World Food Programme headquarters in Haiti, to talk about the documentary, the country, and how he hopes Merci Congo will ignite a fire in all of us during this post-election haze.

VICE: How did you first get interested in the current conflict in Congo?
Paul Freedman: I spent a month and a half in Rwanda making a film about how such a thing could happen in the 20th century, and what was being done now as far as justice. Then I made a film in Darfur, which was also about the Rwandan genocide. It was really interesting, because in that part of the continent, the Congo is everywhere. Somebody always mentions it somewhere, somehow. It really is the beating heart of the continent. It has that big river that runs right up the gut like an artery. It's a huge, huge country. It's scary and mysterious and dangerous and beautiful. I just became infatuated with the idea of telling the story there. I realized I wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to go to Congo and seek out people who were on the other end of that, on the edge of change, on the edge of justice [who think], This country is not a lost cause.

Was there one activist's story that resonated most with you?
I think all of them are in equal parts really important to me and dear to my heart. The process of making a documentary like this, you end up in people's lives for better or for worse. This has all been for better. [Congolese women's rights activist] Neema [Namadamu], the polio survivor, is a freak of nature. She is so powerful. These people have become my brothers and sisters. [Former University of Wisconsin student activist] Katy Johnson is like my daughter. If you sit with people long enough and ask them questions that no one else asks [and] they have to go down to a place they don't normally want to go, you get really close to people.

You touch on it toward the end of the documentary, but can you go into more detail about why you named the film Merci Congo?
During the first trip to Congo in 2013, we met up with our guide from [the United States Agency for International Development] and a guy from the State Department, and they were talking about the [then] new American embassy in Kigali, [Rwanda]. It's built in this new neighborhood that has sprung up in the past ten years. With all the wealth that's been smuggled into Rwanda from eastern Congo, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, some people are getting rich. So this beautiful neighborhood has been built up. You could be driving through Beverly Hills or Bel Air with these big houses with gates and big hedges. I heard these US government guys calling it "Merci Congo," which is totally disdainful and cruel—no Rwandan would ever say that. I just thought that was so poignant in a terrible way, because I love Rwanda. I was so impressed with the way they got their shit together after the genocide. But it's come at such a serious cost. This cost of securing their borders with Congo, where a lot of the Hutu escaped to, has led to the exposure of greed in the highest levels of the Rwandan government. It just resonated with me.

How have you seen things change in the Congo since you first began the documentary?
Things are happening really fast in Congo right now. The elections in the Congo are happening on December 19, at least they are supposed to happen. This is a bad, bad thing, because the president is already planning on postponing them and coming up with some lame excuse. [Editor's note: It was postponed to 2018]. All Joseph Kabila, the president, wants to do is stay in power. Presidents there, they never walk away from office. They're usually carried out in a body bag. He will do anything to remain in power, and continue to enrich himself and the 10,000 to 15,000 people closest to him who live under the protection of his regime. It is a dirty, filthy system that is about to get exposed again, and it's going to get violent. He can't be allowed to stay in power. I know the alternatives to him are not much better, but he just has to go.

In light of America's unease after the recent election, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
I don't know if I truly believe it, but I want to believe that [there's a] spark [of moral indignation] in everybody's soul at seeing some injustice—I don't care if it's a traffic stop, I don't care if it's a massive human rights atrocity. When they come to that point where [they say], "I can't not do anything about this," that's what I want people to think about. I would love for that to happen. But I have to be realistic. People are going to watch the film, and a few people are going to check the website and become activists, but most are going to go on with their lives. But if they remember one thing from the film, it's that we all get this moment of moral indignation, and we can act on it. Once you act on it, it provides a tremendous fuel. It's scary to go up against the system. I think, if more of us took that chance, many more wrongs, from tiny ones to catastrophic ones, could be righted in this world.

Catch the premiere of Merci Congo December 9 at 10:30 PM on VICELAND.

Follow Sarah Bellman on Twitter.

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