Best of Doc 2022 review: Downstream to Kinshasa (Dieudo Hamadi)

Downstream to Kinshasa is an intimate, enlightening portrait of and tribute to optimistic people demanding a place at the table.”

In June of 2000 Rwandan and Ugandan troops clashed in the Congolese town of Kisangani as part of the Six-Day War. Thousands of inhabitants were killed, and many more maimed or orphaned. Twenty years onward the survivors of that disaster are still fighting for the reparations that were promised after the International Court of Justice ordered Uganda to compensate the town. But the victims still haven’t seen the money, their claim file gathering dust in some office drawer in the Congolese capital Kinshasa. In Downstream to Kinshasa, Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi follows some of them as they travel by boat (hence the title) to the capital to make their voices heard, in a quietly devastating and well-observed documentary in which Hamadi gives a dignified face to these victims of war crimes.

In Downstream to Kinshasa‘s final shot we see a small group of people protesting across from the building that houses the parliament that should award them their blood money. Heavy traffic rushes by, not minding the folks with the small banner standing on the corner. It’s a particularly downbeat closing to a film that seemed to follow the expected difficult and painful path that would eventually lead to a cathartic victory. No catharsis here though, just a harsh reality check by Hamadi for his main subjects, who stole our hearts in the preceding ninety minutes. As Downstream to Kinshasa unfolds, we gradually get an intimate glimpse into their world and get to know them to some extent, although Hamadi could have gone a little deeper into their backstory. Their tenacity and resilience and their sheer perseverance makes the viewer root for them as the underdog, only to have their dreams dashed once they actually reach the city and try to plead their case.

But as so often in film it’s not the goal that counts, but the journey. Cut up into three segments, interspersed by staged scenes from theatre therapy sessions in which the victims relive their trauma, Downstream to Kinshasa is for the most part about the road to that street corner that brings them so close yet so far from what they deserve. The opening act is dedicated to introducing the main characters, all suffering from one disability or another, and providing background to the conflict that led to their drama. Eyewitnesses who were in Kisangani during that fateful June month in 2000 tell harrowing stories as they guide Hamadi’s camera and thus the audience around mass graves in Kisangani. We see some of them struggle with their ill-fitting prostheses and discuss their upcoming trip.

The bulk of Downstream to Kinshasa is taken up by the road (well, river) trip down the Congo River to Kinshasa, a voyage of over 1500 kilometres. This is where Hamadi’s documentary shines, as the director weaves and bobs through throngs of people occupying the massive barge that slowly makes its way to the capital. He catches fragments of conversation about a range of issues, from discussions about the quality of the on-board food (apparently not so good) to heartrending stories from one of the disabled about her family nudging her towards suicide. We hear stories about the lack of respect and care, even from their own families. And then there are the conditions on the boat itself, which become downright biblical once thunderstorms start pouring down.

Once the group finally reaches Kinshasa there is hope and a fighting spirit, but on the steps of the parliament building lackadaisical guards refuse them entrance and send them away. The parliament member that was supposed to help plead their case suspends her support to run an election campaign. Discord drives the group apart, and the ones with a little fight left in them occupy a street corner across from where their salvation should have come. It is a sad image, one Hamadi lightens by having a final, more uplifting part of the theatre performance run under the credits.

Downstream to Kinshasa is filled with an abundance of empathy on the part of the filmmaker, who shoots his subjects up close but still at a respectful distance, who gets into the fray with them when needed, and who introduces us to a group of wonderful, admirable people whom we feel we know a little better at the end of their journey. The theatre interludes are well staged and are Hamadi’s way to show a bit of personal background story for some of the group members, but they do break the narrative flow of the film. Still, Downstream to Kinshasa is an intimate, enlightening portrait of and tribute to optimistic people demanding a place at the table. They might not get it, but it’s the act of demanding that is empowering.