To be honest, I was in two minds as to whether to actually go and see this. The film description starts:
“Staff Benda Bilili are a band of homeless, disabled Congolese and street children playing both conventional and improvised instruments, and rise from desperate circumstances to international acclaim.”
OK, call me cynical, but cue sighing and rolling of the eyes on my part. Here we go…! Street urchins high on drugs and the abandoned disabled of DR Congo fighting for survival amidst the poverty, corruption and chaos that constitutes the average concrete jungle (or usally the zinc or aluminium forest) of urban Africa… So when the film opens with a young boy boasting about how easy (and right) it would be to “comb” the white guy filming of his camera and all his millions, I slunk deep into my seat and expected the worst. Bring on the cliches, I thought, let em rip! Former child soldiers, sex slaves, abandoned orphans, prostitutes… all seemingly devoid of any deep human qualities, thereby making their desperately depraved destitution all the more fascinating to watch; and all to a colourful and vibrant African soundtrack to help lift the spirits in the face of having to watch so much courage as last resort in the face of adversity!
Yes, the film does feature street kids (shégués), some of whom may well have been former child soldiers, and the band, Staff Benda Bilili (beyond appearances), was founded by four disabled, wheelchair-bound (well, customised tricycle bound) men – Ricky, Coco, Junana and Théo Coude – who, apart from having to deal with the ravages of polio as children, have had to spend most of their lives eking out a living on the mean streets of Kinshasa, even as they’re shunned by general society. Be prepared to feel an initial discomfort at their lot in life. Be prepared to have any elation suddenly cut short by the news of tragedy. Be prepared to worry about whether it’s alright to laugh at the so many humurous moments that pepper the film, and feel free to (like when one boy tries to explain to another what’s so special about this country called Europe that everyone, himself included, wants to go to). If you really want, be prepared to pity them, though they certainly aren’t asking for your pity. Most of all, however, be prepared to meet, first hand, poor Africans portrayed as being very human, who are also passionate and expressive musicians who take their art very seriously, but without being seriously sanctimonious about it.
The film follows the band over the course of fives years, when the film’s French directors, Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye (who also ended up being their producers), initially heard about them while filming another project on urban Congolese music, and charts their progress from the rag-tag outfit that practiced in Kinshasa zoo, to their successful European tour, culminating in Staff Benda Bilili winning the 2009 Artist Award at Womex (World Music Expo).
The stars of the film have to be Ricky and Roger, a 13 year old boy introduced to the band by the directors, who Ricky nurtures and takes under his wing. While Ricky is very much the spirit of the band, holding it together despite the pitfalls and disappointments, it’s through Roger, who we see grow up on screen. From the cute, determined but self-conscious child prodigy who wows the band at his audition with his self-made satongé (a one- string guitar made with a wooden bow stuck into a tin can and held together at both ends by a single guitar string but which produces an amazing range of sounds), to the um… cute (but in a different way) 18 year old superstar playing to European crowds in a manner that would make Jimi Hendrix proud, it’s Rogher who personifies the band’s progression and metamorphosis. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his ghetto fabulous (as in South Central LA) garb and he exits his remote village to rejoin the band after a hiatus.
And let’s not forget the music! Apparently, the filmmakers embedded themselves with their subjects, living with them in the streets, sleeping, as they did, on cardboard, with intermittent trips back to France, but returning wit more money to ensure they recorded and released their first album/DVD, Tres, Tres, Fort, and eventually following them, to 5 star luxury in Europe. With refrains like “sex machine” in one song, with Fela (or perhaps Femi) Kuti infectiousness, Hendrix-like flourishes and, naturally, nods to Papa Wemba (world famous soukous musician), their musical influences are vast and varied. The music is certainly intoxicating enough to entrance and excite foreign audiences (they toured Europe, the US and are currently in the Far East), but their lyrics speak of their lives and the lives of others like them – yes, former child soldiers, abandoned orphans, prostitutes… marginalised members of society who have little to thank their national leaders for, and whose community spirit helps foster the kind of strength of dignity you can only but admire, even as you despair (whatever concerns I thought I had about my own life suddenly seemed really pathetic in comparison).
Benda Bilili! premiered at 2011’s Cannes Film Festival, opening Director’s Fortnight and, with the whirlwind success of the band, was hotly tipped to be the next Buena Vista Social Club. There’s sex (well, mention of it), drugs and rock n roll, with more than a dollop of unglamorous reality to balance out the heady highs.
See it if you get the chance!