Das Kongo Tribunal*
Dir. Milo Rau
August 7, 2017
Again, this is a long post, but for this I make no apologies. The film Das Kongo Tribunal explores an issue that does not have nearly enough words dedicated to it. I don’t have enough words to properly explore this issue in full, but here are a few words about the film and the issue at the heart of both the original tribunal and the subsequent documentary.
I am going to start this post with the final words of this post: see this film! If nothing else see this film! If you don’t get through this entry entirely than watch Das Kongo Tribunal when it comes to theatres, because what it says is so so so important.
Two years after the highly ambitious political-action and theatrical trial Das Kongo Tribunal (The Congo Tribunal), Milo Rau has released the documentary film by the same title. The film shortens the massive six-day trial Rau staged in Bukavu – the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC], and Berlin, Germany to a 100 minutes. The initial project was, praised as one of the most ambitious theatre projects of its time by the Guardian and its subsequent filmic translation was invited to the world-renowned Locarno Film Festival in Locarno, Switzerland.
I, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to see any the original trial in 2015, so it is only fair to state, my interpretation of the trial in this post is built entirely (or almost entirely) on the documentary film as well as reviews, video clips, twitter feeds, and accounts of the original project (the official IIPM [Rau’s production company: International Institute of Political Murder] book on Das Kongo Tribunal is not released until August 8, 2017 and not available at the moment I am writing this – also August 8, 2017).
After nearly seven hours of buses and trains the morning of August 7, 2017, I along with many others filed into the unair-conditioned L’altra Sala on the outer edges of the festival grounds in Locarno. The room was sweltering hot as the final guests packed into the theatre. Opening words introduced the film in French and English, one of the members of the film team joked in English that the sweltering temperature in the stall provided an authentic viewing experience. A few words were said in French and English – some I understood and others I did not. The lights blinked off and the crowd fell silent as film opened to the aftermath of a massacre at a school in the East Congo, the victims were mostly children.
The safe distance of words I had read in preparation (academic books and articles about the DRC) rapidly dissolved and my beloved cool academic distance drastically reduced. The opening credits rolled and I felt a knot in my throat.
A Tribunal for the Congo:
The DRC is in resources one of the richest and most valuable countries in the world.
How is it then, that Congo is also one of the most poverty-stricken nations in the world with some of the poorest people?
Congo, to paraphrase Rau, has always had the misfortune of having exactly what the West wanted: gold, diamonds, and – most recently – Coltan, a substance necessary for smart phones, tablets, and computers. The continued mining of these resources is therefore highly beneficial for the West and providing for our daily comforts and conveniences. I cannot help but reflect I am writing this post on a laptop that certainly contains the aforementioned mineral and is, without a doubt, the direct result of this conflict in the Congo).
Das Kongo Tribunal explores the ongoing conflict (really the ongoing civil war) in the DRC and place of the West and Western corporations in the creation and proliferation of violence and poverty. The film looks at the complexities of the conflict, exploring the influence of foreign corporations such as the Canadian mining giant BANRO that mine the land until there are no minerals left, forcing people off their land, pumping poison into the water, and profiting from the continued unrest. The documentary also looks at the role of the cooperation of the Congolese government with these corporations and the government’s inability/unwillingness to intervene and prevent further massacres and violence.
Much like Rau’s two other trial dramas, Die Moskauer Prozesse and Die Zürcher Prozess, Das Kongo Tribunal attempts to look at the argument from various perspectives to provide an even understanding of the issue at the heart of the trial. Members of the government and militia speak alongside farmers and miners. Witnesses and experts provide their diverse perspectives on the situation in the DRC. Even the Canadian Mining Firm BANRO (a company out of Saskatchewan) is shown to have built schools and hospitals in the regions it mines.
Rau, true to form, is not interested painting a simplistic black and white picture, but rather works to show a full picture (or as full as is possible in the span of six days or 100 minutes) inclusive of the complexities and shades of gray. Rau looks at the complexities of the situation, at the political, economic, and moral sides of the issue. The film jumps between the initial three-day tribunal in Bukavu and the subsequent three-day tribunal in Berlin, although there is, understandably, a larger focus on the days in Bukavu in the documentary. This directorial choice places the perspective largely in the hands of those people on the ground – those directly involved and affected by the mines and conflict.
A Moral Argument:
At the heart of the film is the threefold economic, political, and moral argument. As Rau presents this argument it becomes clear, while they are inseparably intertwined, it is both easy and dangerous to conflate these three elements. The moral argument is, understandably, the moral argument the most slippery of the three. The West inherently benefits from Coltan and gold mines and the destruction and conflict spread by this booming industry. A minority of the Congolese, such as those in the upper echelons of government, benefit on a small financial scale while the vast majority suffers for to the benefit of these few.
Thus the problematic and uncomfortable truth reveals itself: How can we in the West consider ourselves a moral and enlightened society (and indeed this concept of “enlightenment” remains central to our concept of self), when we
have built our everyday on the poverty and exploitation of others? Economics ties into the political and the political into the moral, because isn’t it the purpose of government to look out for the best interests of its people? Simply: moral economics (more broadly moral capitalism) cannot exist and as politicians are involved in this economic process neither can moral politics. For the West the question of morality becomes geographic – i.e., as long as I can’t see it than it isn’t really my problem (not in my backyard) or what Rau calls cynical humanism.
The problematic truth of the matter is in the end when the resources are gone, the West will leave but Congo will still be there and left without resources.
What is the cost of a laptop or cellphone in terms of human life? Yet it is naïve to think there is a way back – to rewind. The movement forward is now situated in the question of what do we as spectators do with this new knowledge? As Rau in his closing statement asserts: while the tribunal is fictional, it will be legitimated in the changes brought about through the awareness it brings.
A Canadian Perspective on a Swiss Perspective:
For me, one of the most problematic elements of the film was the centrality, the physical presence, of Milo Rau in the film. It initially appeared to be a white, cis man coming to save the poor oppressed Africans unable to save or help themselves. However, this opening from a white perspective actually serves as an entrance into an extremely nuanced critique of a system built largely around the perspective of white, cis-gendered men.
The film rapidly shifts from Rau to the people – the witnesses, the survivors, the experts, the generals, the government officials, and all those in between. In the opening moment at the site of the school
massacre, the camera is focused on Rau, but as the young student activist comes into frame showing Rau what has happened, Rau pushes the cameraman forward and steps out of frame. The focus is no longer Rau – the white, cis-gender, Swiss man – but instead this individual, seething with anger and outrage about what is happening to his people and that no one knows. Thus, Rau becomes as much a spectator as the viewing audience, undergoing a similar journey from ignorance to comprehension. Here we the viewer see what can be done with this new knowledge (Rau made a performance and documentary) and that something can indeed be done.
Certainly something that has always bothered me – not bothered but always remained at the back of my mind – is closely connected to this problem of perspective.
We are inevitably and inescapably shaped by our cultural, social, political, economic contexts. I can say with great certainty that part of the reason why Das Kongo Tribunal shook me. It challenged a certain part of my core conception of what it meant to be Canadian. My basic education taught me Canadians are peacekeepers, an assumption I have held in small part onto. Yet BANRO, a Canadian corporation, is clearly involved in creating conflict, which the government has done little to prevent and little to reveal, and I, as a consumer, have benefited from this profiteering. I am forced to come face to face with my own ignorance about the entire situation. A quick look at BANRO’s website reveals smiling faces of employees with no trace of the conflict raging in DRC or the cost of the minerals it mines (in the case of BANRO, gold).
How did I not know this? How is this new? How hard have I worked to keep the blindfold on and my eyes closed?
A mixture of horror, anger, and sadness marked this realization of complicity through ignorance: It was so easy not to know and not to question. The name BANRO has certainly floated in the background of my life (particularly since starting to research Milo Rau) and was always associated with the occasional scandal, but never seemed quiet important enough to dig a little deeper. Even with a PhD supervisor whose worked extensively with the history of the DRC and my own preliminary research in preparation for this documentary – all of which perhaps gave me the false impression I was not ignorant – the carefully windexed walls of my own glass house are all of a sudden painfully visible.
Returning to Rau, the nagging question for me has always been why is a Swiss director making theatre and political actions about these issues that seem so far outside himself? I am product of a Canadian social, political and economic understanding of the world and Rau is invariably a product of his Swiss
understanding of the world, an essentially Swiss artist. Why does he choose to re-write history? And why does he get to re-write history? This is a question so inseparable from privilege and the privilege of being a white European with the disproportionate power that this allows us. Isn’t it just colonialism in another form or classic revisionist history? Rewriting the history of another people to better suit me?
Isn’t this just more of the same old same old?
But it isn’t.
It is privilege repurposed for the sake of something good – or at least something better.
Maybe I’m wrong and maybe Rau is wrong, but only history will be able to judge that. But privilege and a deep-rooted fear of this privilege has always dissuaded me from taking action, because who am I to tell someone else’s story? Who am I to take action? (And admittedly this is in itself a show of my privilege that I have the luxury of not having to take action) Yet Rau takes on this role with an absolute self-awareness. He is the white man in the crowd at the political rally in Bukavu who is going to create a tribunal for the people. He is privileged, but he is not paralyzed by a fear of this privilege or afraid it will somehow denigrate his work. Instead, Rau repurposes his power and privilege providing a megaphone for the voiceless. This does not
make the issue of power and privilege any less problematic, but it attempts to do something and create a palpable change in the world.
And while I continue to struggle with the implications this certainly entails, I nevertheless respect Rau greatly for what he does and the risks he takes in his work. It is an incredibly brave undertaking and the effectiveness of the work speaks for itself, what started out as a 600-word blog quickly turned into over 2000 words and I have barely scratched the surface of the film let alone the actual tribunal. To open oneself up to critique, while recognizing there is a highly problematic element present in what you do, but do it anyway because it needs to be done. And if not by Milo Rau, or you or I for that matter, than who? To be a passive observer is not enough and, to quote one of the judges at the tribunal Jean-Louis Gilissen, “it will never be enough.”
Final Thoughts (for now):
To quote Rau’s 2015 production Mitleid, “Here, amid these million dead and raped, to cry, that would be the very last,” and yet, as Rau’s dramaturg Stefan Bläske says in an interview about Mitleid, there is nothing left to do but that.
The tribunal closes with a moment of immense dissatisfaction: The tribunal is fictional and has not yet become real. In the moment of the verdict what Rau calls the rapid Entdramatisierung, or de-dramatization, takes place. The tribunal was fictional, but the testimonies real. The freedom of the performance space (its implied fictionality) allowed for a reality realer than any real (in this sense proper legal) tribunal. As the theatricality falls away the crushing reality comes crashing down onto the head of the spectator: as I leave the theatre nothing outside has changed, but I am now awake to the reality and gravity of the situation. Rau asserts in his final statement that in knowing and spreading this knowledge change becomes possible, thus the tribunal will eventually legitimate itself.
In this spirit my final word (and first word) is see this film! If nothing else see this film!
*Please note, having only watched the film once and the film is extremely full. I have certainly missed at least one major theme present and will most definitely have to amend this post after reading the publication and seeing the film again. This review/analysis of the production is best described as a first response to the film and is in no way definitive or complete.