Released last year, Kirsten Johnston's fascinating portrait of a documentarian at work, simply titled Cameraperson, featured a scene wherein a Nigerian midwife realises that a newborn baby desperately needs oxygen that the hospital doesn't have. Johnson's dilemma – stay at her post or attempt to assist – is dramatically palpable. One can only imagine that French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras experienced something similar on a moment-by-moment basis while shooting Makala.
The film, named after the Swahili for coal, chronicles a young Congolese man’s efforts to make charcoal and bring it to market. The 28-year-old Kabwita Kasongo saws away at a tree, then hauls the mighty trunk to a mound that serves as a massive oven. Having burned the wood, he loads it into bags on his bicycle and pushes his wares toward the city. It takes days to walk the mostly uphill 30 miles to market, and sales prove just as difficult as the sweaty, near-Sisyphean toil required to produce the charcoal in the first place. It’s properly dirty work, but he has a wife and young daughters to support.
Gras keeps shooting, when it often must have been tricky to resist the urge to give the bike a push. His camerawork is intimate enough to capture every huff, grimace and bead of sweat. It’s a tribute to the filmmaker’s dedication and to Karen Benainous’ fluid editing that the lonely road to the city never feels any safer. When Kabwita fails to attract a fair price, he wanders into a late-night gospel church and prays plaintively.
There's an interesting dialectic underlying Makala, which last year became the first documentary to be presented in competition at the Critics' Week in Cannes, where it won the Nespresso Grand Prize. Joining The Price of Sugar and Workingman's Death, Makala the film offers the kind of confrontational, truthful depiction of capitalism that ought to screen early and often in schools.
But Emmanuel Gras' work is simultaneously a hypno-doc, a compressed, contemplative real-time chronicle of a pre-industrial way of life. As with the similarly themed 2005 monk movie Into Great Silence, or Le Quattro Volte (a 2010 portrait of an Italian goat-herder whose methods and village have changed little since medieval times), it's as meditative as it is maddening.