Friday, 1 June 2012

Benda Bilili!

Benda Bilili! Is a 2010 documentary about a group of disabled musicians from Kinshasa, Congo who use rudimentary and hand made instruments to produce wonderful rumba and reggae music. The band are followed from 2004 to 2010 by French film makers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye as they progress from living on the streets and practicing at the city’s zoo to recording an album and touring Europe. The film focuses on the struggles of the various members and those around them and upon their influence in the city and especially on the young street kids who follow and assist them.
The band use strange hand peddled tricycles to get about as most of the members suffer from Polio and are unable to walk. Their songs are about their lives on the streets from being laughed at for being handicapped to songs about sleeping on cardboard. Bad things keep coming at the various members but they never let it get them down and remain focused on making a better life for themselves and their families. In one scene, the leader of the band Staff Benda Bilili a street papa called Ricky Lickabu receives a call to say that the shack that he has been staying at has been burned down. He simply turns to the camera and says “these things happen in life”. He is later seen sleeping on the street with his wife and four children.

Along with Ricky another one of the stars of the film is Roger Landu who was introduced to the band by the French film makers. Landu fashioned his own instrument using an empty tin can, a twig and string and is able to make incredible music from just one high pitched twang. After joining the group as a shy but dedicated young boy by the end of the film he is on stage in France performing solos, lying on his back on stage ala Jimi Hendrix to the delight of the paying crowds. It’s a fantastic story.

All the way through the members of the band are sure to try to educate those around them about the likes of hard work and vaccinations and even share out what little money they make between their various hangers on. The street children who surround the band who have had no formal education speak with more wisdom and knowledge than I’ve ever heard come from a Western child. They are aware of their surroundings, what has caused them and the various legal and illegal ways out and debate amongst themselves the various possibilities of their future. It’s heartbreaking.

One theme throughout the film is everyone’s desire to get to Europe. Europe is almost treated as a mystical place where anything is possible. Some people have misconceptions such as one child who tells his young friend that “Europe is a country that God put here so we can compare it to our own”. Everyone knows that their best chance of survival is to make it to Europe and the streets of Europe’s cities are testament to the fact that many get here.

Benda Bilili! is a thoroughly uplifting film though you have to get through some pretty rough viewing to get there. The story and people are life affirming and the music is excellent.


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