Emmanuel Gras's 'Makala' is a meditative documentary of mythical proportions.
In the opening scene of Makala, a 28-year-old man chops down a tree in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's a slow, arduous process that culminates in the young man, a poor villager named Kabwita, incrementally gaining ground over the looming beast until it thunders to ground with an earth-shattering force and a boom that reverberates across the brush. It's an epic, almost Biblical moment that both humbles and celebrates the strength of man. But it is only the first of many back-breaking endeavors that face Kabwita in a world that will prove indifferent to his struggles.
Emmanuel Gras's meditative documentary follows Kabwita for one and a half months as he produces charcoal, loads it up on his precarious rickshaw, and embarks on a days-long journey to the nearest city to sell the fruits of his labor for a pittance. (He hopes this will get him closer to his dream of building a house; meanwhile, his wife, Lydie, cooks rats over a fire pit for sustenance).
The restraint with which Gras films Kabwita as he toils away at his tedious and seemingly neverending work is somehow Proustian; at once excessively attentive to detail, while also evoking a drama of mythical proportions. In fact, like Proust, Makala feels more like a fictional narrative rather than a documentary—and according to Gras, that's by design.
No Film School caught up with Gras via phone from France to discuss how he shot and directed the film with only two other crew members, the ethical responsibility he felt toward his subject, and why his film was among the rare breed of documentaries selected to play in the Critic's Week program at Cannes.
No Film School: How did you decide to dedicate a film to this character, Kabwita?
Emmanuel Gras: I knew the region because of previous documentaries. One was about people who were digging the soil to get minerals, and the other one was about the construction of a road between Kolwezi, which is a town that you see in the film, and another town. I spent months there filming people and workers. I watched all the charcoal producers who were carrying their productions in bags. I had been very impressed by the work they were doing, and so I began to ask questions about where they came from, how much it costs for one bag, etc. I was interested. I began to [collect] information.
"I wanted the film to look like fiction. I wanted to pull narrative from reality."
Gras: After that, when I came back to France, I discussed the idea of making a film that could follow one person and his work from point A to point B. I discussed this with Congolese friends. Eventually, I went back [to the DRC] with Gaston Mushid, who is a journalist and who worked with me as the guide and translator. Together, we went to several villages around Kolwezi, just to meet people there and get to know the kind of work they were doing. I thought maybe I could meet someone that I would like to follow.
Then I met Kabwita, the hero of the film. I needed to have someone that I really wanted to film and to be with. The idea of the film, the structure, the concept—that all began before meeting Kabwita. But the incarnation, and the reality that it was possible to make a film with someone, happened when I met Kabwita. I felt that he had something—his way of talking and of reacting, and his curiosity, were very important to me.
And so we discussed making the film. We spent time together. I came back [to France] and I wrote something. One year later, I [went to the DRC] to make the film.
NFS: How much of the story was preconceived, and how much was left up to documentary fate?
Gras: I had written a structure. In a way, it was very simple. Because Kabwita was living in a village, I knew that instead of selling his charcoal [there], he had to cut the tree, bring it to the oven, take out the charcoal, put it in the bag, and travel to the city to sell it. I knew that there was one goal, which was to sell his charcoal. And because he had this goal, he had to do all the things that you see in the film. So that, in this way, I knew a lot of the story beforehand.
"My idea for the film was to see if it was possible to say something about the country—to feel the life of a man—just by staying focused on his work."
NFS: So when you got there and you began filming, you knew the general framework. But as things would happen to Kabwita on his journey, how would you react and adapt to the way you were telling the story?
Gras: For example, I didn't know that he had the [intention] of building a new house. In fact, when I met him for the first time, I didn't know that he was renting his house. So when he told me about this project of building a new house for himself, I thought that it was very interesting for the film to understand that he has a future. His goal is not only to sell his product day by day, but that there was a bigger project. So I asked him to discuss that with his wife [while I filmed].
When there was something that I thought it was important information to understand who he was—or also because it was interesting for the film dramatically—I tried to incorporate that. I was not just following what was happening; I was also asking him to talk about some stuff. But only really his work.
When you see the film, you see that everything is about the work. My idea for the film was to see if it was possible to say something about the country—to feel the life of a man—just by staying focused on his work.
I filmed different scenes in the village—the village life and the daily life with neighbors and friends. But when I was filming that, I knew that it was not really the core of the film. I didn't keep it in the editing.
NFS: How did you think about ways to aesthetically convey his work—this Sisyphean task—with cinematography?
Gras: That was the most important thing for me. Not the aesthetic [in terms of] doing something pretty, but creating something very sensitive and physical. The question was always how to create the feeling of being with Kabwita in every move he was making, and in every detail of what he was doing. The filming had to be visually very attentive.
For example, there are very few wide shots or shots filmed from a distance. I wanted to always follow him. I wanted to create a film where the spectator could physically feel the nature, but also the work that he was doing.
When I was [in the DRC], however, I also felt that there was something more than that—more than describing concrete reality. I wanted to create something more mythical, or something more oneiric. I discovered that when I was filming. For example, in the first scene of the film, Kabwita walks from village to the tree in the morning. I discovered there was a lot of wind, and I thought, "Wow. This scene creates the feeling that we are entering some mythical place."
"A big challenge was how to film long shots of someone walking without it being boring or unwatchable."
NFS: You didn't take a tripod with you. What cameras and rig did you have, and how did you manage it all by yourself?
Gras: I had two cameras. One was a Canon C100. It's a good, medium-sized camera that you hold on your shoulder.
I had a sort of system of a photo camera with a stabilizer. That's something new. I knew I would be [doing] lots of following—walking behind him, or by his side. So I knew that a big challenge was how to film long shots of someone walking without it being boring or unwatchable. So when I discovered this new handheld stabilizer, I thought, "Okay, I have this tool now. Maybe I can do something with that."
The problem was that it's so smooth—so stabilized—that I was afraid that it would create something too pretty, or too aesthetic. That was my big anxiety. But while I was filming, I realized the most important thing was to not to create an expressive camera. You [should not] feel the cameraman behind the camera. The most important thing is the audience's attention to happening. So I mostly used this system that worked like a Steadicam.
For example, there is a five-minute-long shot where you just follow Kabwita pushing the bag, and I turn around him. That's only possible with this kind of stabilization; otherwise, it would have been too shaky. You shouldn't be distracted by a shaky image.
NFS: Obviously this was an incredibly challenging film because you were shooting it and directing it yourself. Who else was on the crew?
Gras: We had three. Me, a sound engineer, and Gaston, my assistant and a journalist. He is very well known in this region, so he helped us a lot. For example, he helped when we were at the market where it was difficult to film because there is a lot of people. I'm white and the sound engineer is also white, so we were not very discreet.
A big part of the film is about the sound, also. That was a big challenge—to record the best sound possible, because of all the physicality. [Much of what you can] feel from the film comes from the sound.
NFS: What about Kabwita's world did you want to bring alive with sound?
Gras: I wanted to be able to hear what he could hear: the wind, the noise of the environment. I wanted to feel his breathing while he was doing [this enormous physical labor]. How do you breathe when you push a bag like that for miles and miles and miles? I wanted to feel how tiring it is. The idea was really to show his effort with the sound.
"I'm against this idea of fly-on-the-wall documentaries."
NFS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but was this the first documentary to be presented in competition at Cannes?
Gras: In fact, no. Not exactly.
NFS: But it's very rare for a documentary?
Gras: Yeah, it's very rare. In the Critic's Week section, it's very rare. I mean, it's maybe every three years that one documentary [is programmed].
NFS: I think a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that the film feels very narrative, despite the fact that is a documentary. Why do you think it is that audiences experience the film as more narrative?
Gras: I thought about it as if it was a classical fiction, in a way. It's just a classic story of the hero who leaves his family home to live an adventure, and to bring back something to his family. A lot of stories are just that, you know? The hero has to fight against the dragon to save his family or his village. In this way, it's very narrative.
I wanted the film to look like fiction. I wanted to pull narrative from reality. That's why I choose not to appear at all. There is no voiceover, and you don't see the process of filming at all. There are no interviews. The camera is like an eye.
And as I was talking about earlier, the discussion with his wife—it's this situation where the character is acting out his own life. So maybe that also creates the feeling of a fiction.
I'm against this idea of fly-on-the-wall documentaries. I think that if you set things up, you can find a truth that is deeper than what you could observe just by following [a subject].
NFS: Were there ever moments—especially when Kabwita gets into very difficult circumstances, such as when he's being robbed, or "taxed"— where you thought about stepping in and lending a hand? Did you ever do that?
Gras: Yeah. Of course. These moments are not in the film. That was the principle of being there without being seen as if I were there.
The idea was that he was in charge of telling me when he was experiencing something difficult. He, of course, understood that we were making a film. So if he was in a bad situation or if he was like, "No, I'm tired," of course we stopped. But he also knew that the obstacles were part of the film.
"It was impossible to think that I would have just filmed him—filmed his life—and do nothing for him after."
For example, the tax scene that you mentioned, where corrupt officials steal his charcoal on the road—this scene was filmed with a hidden camera. We knew that [the officials] were there, and Kabwita knew they were there, and we wanted to see what happened. In this kind of scene, we both knew that maybe there would be a problem. So when they took a bag of his charcoal, I knew that I wouldn't just let him go on without it. There would be retribution after the film.
NFS: So there was a certain responsibility that you took towards Kabwita as a friend and a human, outside of being a subject. I think that's pretty rare, actually, for documentarians.
Gras: That's always very complicated. What is the relationship between [filmmaker and subject] when you are doing a documentary? Each film has its own story behind the story. For me, it was impossible to think that I would have just filmed him—filmed his life—and do nothing for him after. That was impossible for me, but also for him. His conditions of life are so different from mine that I couldn't go on without [helping] him.