TRUE/FALSE FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | March 8, 2011
Director: Renaud Barret, Florent de la Tullaye
Writer(s): Renaud Barret (script), Florent de la Tullaye (script)
Starring: Maria Barli Djongo, Renaud Barret, Cubain Kabeya
Staff Benda Bilili is, quite literally, a band of outsiders. Not only are most of them disabled, but they hail from one of the most unlikely of places—a slum in Kinshasa, Congo. The core of the band consists of four senior vocalists, all of who are paraplegics as a result of poliomyelitis, including their de facto leader, Leon Libaku; they scurry around the slums on tricycles customized with hand pedals. The band has taken a cadre of ex-sheges (abandoned street kids) under their wings in an erstwhile attempt to steer them clear of violence and crime; some of the kids play instruments in the band, including Roger Landu, who created a unique single-stringed instrument with an empty can and a piece of wood, while others act as rickshaw drivers, shuttling the paraplegics around.
Filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye stumbled upon Benda Bilili while collecting footage of street musicians in the slums of Congo in 2005. (Benda Bilili were also featured in Barret and de La Tullaye’s documentary, Jupiter’s Dance.) Barret and de La Tullaye obviously saw a ripe opportunity to expose Benda Bilili to the rest of the world, and rather than simply shoot a documentary about Benda Bilili, it seems as though Barret and de La Tullaye take things a few steps further; they make it their mission to save Benda Bilili from the slums (or at least make their lives a little less harsh). Barret and de La Tullaye never go as far as clearly stating their roles or goals, but it seems as if they essentially become Benda Bilili’s temporary management. It is Barret and de La Tullaye who find financing as well as a producer willing to record Benda Bilili on the cheap. (This all occurs off-screen, so it is very difficult to surmise Barret and de La Tullaye’s exact involvement with the band.) If all goes according to plan, Benda Bilili’s music will be distributed around the world.
It is impossible to deny that this was a very good deed on the part of Barret and de La Tullaye. They take a huge risk; we are never told how much is at stake, and I imagine Benda Bilili will be eternally grateful. But, being that Benda Bilili! screened at True/False, what better time and place to discuss the ethical responsibilities of documentary filmmakers. So are Barret and de La Tullaye showing us everything that we need to know? It is obvious that Barret and de La Tullaye are not impartial towards their subjects, but should they have tried to be? Barret and de La Tullaye seem to be invested, quite literally, in the outcome of this story. Should they have revealed more details about their behind the scenes efforts in getting Benda Bilili recorded, signed and sold? In my opinion, there lies the true story: how did Benda Bilili become world music celebrities? We only see the results of what appears to be Barret and de La Tullaye’s assistance, but we do not know what precisely they did.
Undeniably, Benda Bilili! is an emotionally moving and heartwarming tale with a finely tuned narrative arc. But what really irks me is that there is something that seems almost self-congratulatory about Benda Bilili!. It is one thing to film someone else as they attempt to turn a bunch of paraplegics from an African slum into world music icons, but when filmmakers seem to involve themselves directly in their narrative (especially when they do so off-screen) it is a completely different story. I am not saying that their choice to record the positive affects of their own good deeds is a bad thing, but by hiding so many facets of the business side of things, Barret and de La Tullaye make me a little suspicious of their motives and actions. Maybe they were not intentially being secretive; it is actually more likely that Barret and de La Tullaye did not want the film to focus on their own involvement. When it comes down to it, I seem to think Barret and de La Tullaye want it to appear as though Benda Bilili’s success is self-made. I, however, would have preferred if they provided fuller disclosure of their participation in Benda Bilili’s success. Just to clarify: this is all speculation, I left the theater assuming that Barret and de La Tullaye assisted Benda Bilili in getting their songs recorded, signed and sold. Maybe I misread something?
Benda Bilili! was selected by the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and will be screening at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.