Review by Sean Boelman
African filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi clearly has an extremely gifted and personal voice, and his new documentary Downstream to Kinshasa is a wonderful showcase for his talents. Poetic and moving, Hamadi takes a story that initially seems like one of local interest and reveals the greater implications that it has.
The movie follows a group of people injured in the Six-Day War that devastated the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2000 as they set out on a journey to receive the compensation they deserve for having their lives destroyed. What happened to these people is undeniably heartbreaking, but Hamadi’s focus is on the hope they have been able to hold onto.
Even though the film is, at its core, about people seeking repayment for the atrocities committed against them, on a deeper level, it’s a celebration about how culture can rebuild. Despite having gone through some truly horrible things in their lives, these people still dance and sing, and Hamadi makes sure to show that.
There is a particular poetry to Hamadi’s filmmaking, and it is part of what allows the movie to connect so well. He isn’t just telling a story of a group of activists who are standing up for a cause, he is presenting a portrait of a group of people who have recovered from trauma and become more than they were.
Additionally, the film is really gorgeous to look at. Hamadi’s cinematography, following these people along the Congo, is able to find the beauty in unexpected places. Obviously, there are a lot of really awesome shots that take advantage of the natural gorgeousness of the riverside areas, but even in the more urban portions, it’s surprisingly aesthetically-pleasing.
Also impressive is the level of compassion with which the filmmaker approaches his subjects. It’s a sad story that, in the wrong hands, could have turned into baiting pity from the audience. Instead, Hamadi earns the audience’s sympathy by showing these people not just as victims, but people unfairly deprived of their livelihoods.
That said, the movie arguably could have been a bit more impactful had it focused more on some of the members of the community on an individual level. Hamadi does a wonderful job of making the viewer understand and connect with the identity of this group as a whole, but he could have spared to emphasize their individual voices a bit more.
Downstream to Kinshasa seems like it is going to be a very specific documentary, but it’s much more expansive than expected. It’s gorgeous, touching, and poetic, making it an undersung gem that deserves more attention.
Downstream to Kinshasa screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.