Makala means charcoal in Swahili, and a suitable subtitle for Emmanuel Gras’ Critics’ Week selection might have been “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Charcoal (But Were Too Afraid to Ask).” One of those sly, low-key films whose early scenes will leave you unsure whether you’re watching a documentary or a drama marked by a docu-real aesthetic, “Makala’s” depiction of back-breaking labor is as no-frills as the work itself.
Gras’ documentary introduces its slow-cinema vibe by devoting several minutes to observing 28-year-old Kabwita fell a mighty tree in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When it finally topples over, the sound reverberates throughout the surrounding brush as though the earth itself is mourning the loss.
This tree-chopping isn’t recreational, of course — it accounts for a vital part of Kabwita’s livelihood as a charcoal producer. Much of his life is devoted to the process of cutting down the tree and preparing the wood, and it occupies a commensurate amount of the film’s runtime — much as Chantal Akerman devoted herself to documenting to potato-peeling in “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels.”
With an eye toward the future, Kabwita takes notes at night — a mango tree here, a palm tree there — as he and his wife Lydie plan to build their house. The surrounding area has been so shorn of wildlife by the slash-and-burn approach that rats aren’t an uncommon dinner. Kabwita and Lydie never despair, though, and neither does Gras — “Makala” is decidedly evenhanded, with Gras thoroughly resisting sensationalization throughout.
Actually making the charcoal, it turns out, is the easy part. More difficult still is transporting it to town on foot and selling it for a worthwhile price. It’s a bit like “The Road,” minus the post-apocalyptic aspect, with Kabwita trudging along the roadside with a cart full of supplies and wares. At times you’ll feel compelled to reach through the screen and give him a hand, or at least wonder why the director can’t or won’t. As Kabwita continues, however, you get the sense that he wants to see this through to the end as he always does.
Gras takes an observational approach to all this, with no narration or onscreen involvement; if it’s true that restraint is the greater part of valor, then you can expect him to be knighted someday. There’s a fine line between watching someone toil and feeling as though you’re toiling yourself, of course, and “Makala” doesn’t always land on the right side of it. It can be edifying at times to watch this, as the film is clearly a labor of love — even if the actual work depicted is not.
“Makala” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival Critics’ Week. It is currently seeking distribution.