I recently watched a documentary about the Democratic Republic of Congo, which focused on the country's widespread rape and brutality, and it was depressing beyond words. For years, the country's inhabitants have been mired in unimaginable violence and poverty, but a new film this week brings us a much-needed tale of hope from that troubled region. Filmed over the course of five years, Benda Bilili! is a documentary that follows a musical group as they leave the streets of Kinshasa, venture into the recording studio to produce their first album, and finally embark upon an international tour. These are no young starlets with dreams of fame, however; the members of this group are homeless, crippled by polio, and far from the first flush of youth. Theirs is a most unlikely success story.
It's an undeniably rousing one too. Benda Bilili! (their name translates as "Look beyond appearances") presents us with people coping in the worst conditions, paraplegics living in abject poverty, and shows them finding ways to overcome the obstacles life has placed in front of them through their love of music. They sing with humour and heart about their own lives and their own problems, and the film's directors, Renaud Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye, give us an insight into their living conditions as they chart the group's progress. We only really meet a couple of the musicians on an individual basis during the course of the film, with band leader 'Papa' Ricky being our guide for much of the early part of the movie, but the real star of the movie is Roger. We first meet him as a scrawny, meek 13 year-old who constantly carries with him a homemade satonge, which he has constructed out of a tin can, a piece of wood and a single string. When Ricky discovers him and asks him to join the band, it's obvious that he has detected something special in this kid, and one of the joys of Benda Bilili! is watching the way Roger grows from a boy into a man on this journey, coming out of himself and getting to grips with the breadth of his talent.
As a piece of filmmaking, Benda Bilili! is a little rough around the edges. It feels like it has been shot and assembled in a rather ad hoc fashion, and as its narrative progresses quickly over the years, it occasionally seems to miss key stages in the group's story. The film is driven by its sense of humanity and its optimism, however, and by the infectiously enjoyable music produced by Staff Benda Bilili. The scale of their achievement is made clear when we see two local children speculating on what lies in that mythical land known as 'Europe', and then later see this group delight festival audiences in various European cities. They are homeless, disabled, and some of them are playing on homemade instruments, but as the large crowd roars in appreciation of their energetic performance, they look like they truly belong on that stage.
Benda Bilili! will be released on 18th March 2011. On Friday March 11th, there will be a special preview screening at Union Chapel, Islington, which will be followed by a live performance from Staff Benda Bilili.