Directed by Dieudo Hammadi, Atalaku is set during the latest elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Here’s a quick timeline:
1960: Patrice Lumumba becomes the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Congo (the one that becomes the DRC, not the other one). He is deposed by the president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, and then eventually placed under house arrest with the military leader Joseph Mobutu (remember him – this is the one Bob Dylan wrote a song about – it’s called “Leopard Skin PillBox Hat” …right…)
1961: Lumumba is brutally assassinated, (there’s a fantastic film about it directed by Raoul Peck if you’re interesting…) and Mobutu beginshis assent into power.
1965-1997: Mobutu (monsieur coup d’etat himself) is in power and becomes the archetype of many African dictatorships to follow…
1996: Laurent Kabila leads Tutsi factions against Hutus in Eastern DRC – thus begins the First Congo War.
1997: Laurent Kabila comes to power after the invasions of the DRC (then Zaire) by Rwanda, defeats Mobutu’s forces. This ends with First Congo War, but we have another one…
1998: Second Congo War, which lasts until 2003 (officially). This involves several nations and effectively rips the enter of Africa apart.
2001: Joseph Kabila succeeds his father in office after the latter’s assassination.
2006: First free elections in 46 years. Kabila wins. (Which is a lot like more of the same thing…)
2011: Another multi-party election…
So in 2011, when this documentary was filmed, people have been under the Kabila regime for 24 years. That’s a lot like not having a democracy. And this is far and away the largest theme of the film – the utter impossibility of democracy in the DRC, let alone democratic elections. And there are several reasons for this, some presented subtly and some not-so-subtly by Hamadi.
1. Corruption. The film follows Gaylor, an assistant pastor at the local church, as traipses around the marketplaces with a big black notebook full of names. Those are the names of people who have promised to vote for a candidate, and to whom he gives money directly from the candidate. You could call that “buying votes”… Because it is.
2. Religion. This was a great segment to watch with a Quebecois audience. One of the candidates’ representatives makes a speech at his rally. According to the spokesman, said candidate will win because God wills it. Because said candidate will follow God in all matters of the State. And because he is humble before God above all. This presents some obvious problems. (Because of things like in a democracy you follow the will of the people and if you are of the religious sort, you simply have to hope that people and God can kind of meet in the middle somewhere…)
3. Substance abuse. Gaylor hires a team of dancers and singers to compose a catchy rallying cry, vaunting the qualifications of another candidate. They proceed to ingest several substances, some in liquid and some in rolled form, and then have a fairly difficult time working through the creative process, so to speak. Their spectacle apparently leaves much to be desired. Additionally, after spending an entire afternoon debating the pros and cons of each candidate, and pronouncing, finally, that none of it matters because Joseph Kabila will win anyway, the entire group forget to procure registration cards in order to cast their votes.
4. Illiteracy. There is actually an interesting moment in the marketplace, when the registration workers are trying to explain to several women how to vote, and why it is important that they do so, when this topic is broached head on. After telling a few of the market workers how to sort through the rather massive electoral booklet, which outlines the campaigns of the candidates, one of the women simply says, “And me, who is illiterate. What would you like me to do?” This actually drives at an interesting point, going back to the performing troop – it evokes the role of the griot in that they are responsible for informing – okay, it is propagandizing but what’s the difference? – the voters about the candidate. Through things like song and dance and praise and narrative. All of this taking place entirely outside of written material.
5. Because Joseph Kabila always wins.