Conversation with Machérie Ekwa Bahango: “I wanted to show another side of life on the street”
Dorothee Wenner: MAKI’LA is your first feature film. What initially inspired you to make a film about young people living on the streets of Kinshasa?
Machérie Ekwa Bohango: My personal experiences and encounters. I discovered that children and teenagers who live on the street have many dreams: they experience friendships and love stories. Despite the horrifying things many people associate with homelessness, the everyday life of young people on the street displays the whole spectrum of human feelings. That’s what I wanted to show the world in my film: another side of life on the street that is the opposite of what we always believe.
You wrote the screenplay yourself. How did you research it? The story is quite rough, as it includes extreme poverty, drug use, theft and violence... Please share with us – maybe by using some scenes as examples – the degree to which you tried to be true to a reality that you encountered – almost in documentary style. To what degree did you ‘enhance’ this reality for your film in terms of dramatic structure and suspense?
I wanted to tell the story of a passionate friendship and love between two young women. When I considered how I wanted to depict the specific universe of their milieu in my film, I kept thinking of a particular band of street children that I had encountered several times before. But after that I never saw them again. The memory of this group inspired me. The encounter with these children showed me that life on the street fuses poverty and freedom in a particular way. I wanted to tell a story about their dreams, love and friendship, but without ignoring the reality of life on the street. I wanted my film to connect all these aspects with my own dreams and artistic style. For example, I developed the characters based on my own personal character. I put myself in their shoes, especially in regard to the two main characters. I imagined how I would behave in their situation. And I wanted to share with these children dreams that we have in common.
Who are the actors and actresses?
They are mostly unknown performers. I sought them out for the film, and we began rehearsing several months before shooting. All of them always worked with great discipline.
Kinshasa is a huge metropolis, but it’s rarely depicted in films. You make it a leading character in your film. What was important to you in giving visual expression to the city?
Kinshasa is a very warm-hearted city. That’s exactly how I wanted to show it, from the first scene onwards. This intent determined everything else: the choice of locations, the camera work, the costumes, the work with the actors, the language. I wanted the viewer to be able to identify with the reality of Kinshasa.
Most people in Kinshasa are seldom exposed to the presence of film teams. What kind of challenges did you face making this film? Equally important: what kind of support did you enjoy?
Interestingly, the people of Congo were very co-operative; they repeatedly encouraged me in my plan. Many of them even wanted to be involved in the film; many of them came to the set and took photos with us. Wherever we passed, people wished us luck in completing and launching the film. I’m not absolutely sure, but perhaps this behaviour had to do with many people’s astonishment at seeing a young woman as director. For example, I remember how we filmed the market scenes – and the vendors persuaded their customers to play along as extras. It was almost a shock to me, but the market suddenly became absolutely still when we started the actual shooting. I was endlessly grateful to the people. On the other hand, we had two encounters with the police. Fortunately, we had our filming permit on hand.
All indications point to a new film scene developing in Kinshasa right now – there’s an interesting spirit of optimism, especially among young producers, filmmakers and actors. What are your hopes for the new Congolese cinema?
So many things happen every day in Kinshasa – so why should we go elsewhere to look for stories worth telling? Our goal is to narrate our films in such a way that the Congolese audience can identify with them. It should feel represented through our idea of cinema.
(Interview: Dorothee Wenner, January 2018)