Of Fire and Charcoal

‘Makala’ is a striking film about a charcoal maker that avoids most of the traps of exoticism.


For every unpleasant, difficult job, there’s someone there to say “Well, somebody’s gotta do it.” Kasongo, the subject of Emmanuel Gras’s documentary Makala, is a young Congolese man who makes and sells charcoal, and transports it on his bike to a town about 30 miles away. He is, essentially, a freelancer. A salesman who makes his own product. Although Kasongo’s job has long since been replaced by machines in more industrialized countries, the film neither romanticizes the hard, manual labor, nor does it suggest that nationwide industrialization is an apt solution.

Makala follows Kasongo over the course of a few days. And I mean that quite literally, as Gras (handling his own cinematography) tracks Kasongo down dirt roads and bustling streets. The film charts his process from beginning to end. First, he chops down trees and collects the branches and wood to make charcoal, then he loads the bulky bags filled with charcoal onto his rickety bike that is now too cumbersome to ride, and he walks it for days until he gets to the town of Kolwezi, where he can peddle the bags to locals. Each part of his process takes up a third of the film — a triptych in charcoal, if you will.

With its simple plot, revealing close-ups, and rousing cello solos, Makala has all the makings of an intimate drama. It is beautifully filmed, with sweeping views of the Congolese landscape as well as a number of breathtaking nighttime shots (lit by the headlights of a car). Gras’s cinematography is kinetic without being nauseating. While the film conveys Kasongo’s sweaty perseverance and strength, it avoids fetishizing his body and his pain.

Character study it is, but social commentary it certainly is not. Or at least, it aims not to be. There are no title cards situating the viewer, and apart from the football jerseys and posters serving as decor, there are no indications in the first third of the film that it even takes place in the 21st century. Indeed, much is made of the contrast between Kasongo’s impoverished lifestyle and the post-industrial world outside his small town.

The middle third of the film is comprised entirely of his journey transporting his bags of charcoal on his bike from his home to the town. The Sisyphean journey is long and arduous, but he is offered no sympathy from the cars and trucks zooming past. Even when his bike is knocked down, he is forced to carry on with a flat tire. But as one zoomed-out shot reveals, he shares the road with many others like him — charcoal makers who might have traveled from even farther distances than Kasongo has. But we are not offered glimpses into their world, so we can’t know.

Although Gras is a white Frenchman and the protagonist is black and poor, the film avoids becoming the sort of documentary in which the subject is something to be studied and observed from a distance, with detailed voiceover commentary from an anthropological perspective. No facts about Congo’s GDP are given, nor are there any talking heads. However, the film doesn’t offer a clear solution to the traps of its racialized setup. Clearly, the film owes a great deal to Jean Rouch, the French pioneer of cinéma verité, who made a great deal of films in Africa.

However, Rouch’s brand of cinéma verité is not synonymous with this kind of observational cinema. The “verité” part was acknowledging the influence of the camera and its operator. In Moi, Un Noir, one of his most famous works, actor and character are blended. Rouch collaborated with the men, who acted out and told their own stories through voiceover. Rouch has been heavily criticized for his editing decisions on the film, but despite that he offered documentary film a new modus operandi.

Gras, on the other hand, never questions his own role. If much is made of the disparity between Kasongo’s bike and the countless motorcycles that zoom past him, no questions are asked about Gras’s camera, a feat of technological advances. One can imagine the amount of space Gras and his sound recordist would’ve taken up. And though Kasongo and his wife also don’t appear to notice the camera’s presence, others — specifically in the market scene towards the end — are visibly curious. Yet we are not invited to question their presence, and Kasongo is not asked to collaborate (at least not to our knowledge). Perhaps than, the film’s fault is in the choice of subject. By picking a shy man to be at the centre of the film, it’s much easier to project onto him, rather than asking him to speak for himself.

On the whole, Makala is a captivating film that in its best moments feels less like a documentary and more like a spiritual poem-in-images. It’s a simple, straightforward story, shot and edited in chronological order. But it makes the mistake of using observation as its only route to intimacy.