Photograph by Enrico Dagnino
Benda Bilili! follows an unlikely group of musicians in Kinshasa, capital of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The band, Staff Benda Bilili—in English, “look beyond”—is a group of street musicians composed of four paraplegics and three able-bodied men. The core of the group is four singer/guitarists polio, who use customized tricycles to get around: Ricky, the eldest and a co-founding member of the band; Coco, the band’s composer and co-founding member with Ricky; Junana, the member most disabled by polio, yet the official choreographer; and Coude, a bass player and soprano singer. Joining them is a young and entirely acoustic rhythm section, led by Roger, a teenage prodigy on the satongé, a one-string guitar he designed and built himself out of a tin can.
French film directors Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret encountered the extraordinary group in 2004 as they played their music on homemade instruments in the area around the Kinshasa Zoo and began documenting the band’s struggles to survive—through music—in the volatile city. The result is an exuberant film that follows the band’s journey from the streets to the world’s stages, culminating in the 2009 release of their acclaimed album Tres Tres Fort.
Benda Bilili! was written and directed by Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye. The producers are Yves Chanvillard and Nadim Cheikhrouha of Screenrunner, and Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret of La Belle Kinoise. Co-producers are O.L. Production and Studio 37. The editor is Jean-Christophe Hym. The film premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2011 César Awards, the national film award of France.
Benda Bilili! is a film about outcasts who defy a system that defines them as marginal. It is not a musical film, but the band’s songs complement the narrative. Every problem encountered by the Staff Benda Bilili gives rise to a song they then try out on the streets.
The film is set in emblematic sites. The leader of the band, Ricky, sets up shop in the Sonas traffic roundabout in the center of Kinshasa, a genuine “court of miracles” in the heart of the financial district. This sidewalk corner is a true crossroads of broken destinies, a parliament of the starved and dying; it becomes the band’s headquarters.
The band also frequents the Kinshasa zoo, a wasteland garden littered with cages haunted by emaciated animals. It is a world apart, populated by shégués (street kids), military dealers, hoods, and thugs of all kinds. In this deafening and asphyxiating city, the zoo is the only place of relative calm—a decaying sanctuary that evokes a lost paradise for the Congolese. The Staff Benda Bilili rehearses and even recorded parts of their album there.
Through the wandering band’s “migration,” we see the city streets as sites of transition, an ever moving and dangerous physical environment, full of spikes and pitfalls. Visually, it is the ultimate expression of the political corruption of the city and its effect on the urban landscape that surrounds them—vertiginous holes in the middle of the roadways, lakes of rancid water, crevices that create monstrous traffic jams. The calm determination of our heroes and the hypnotic clicking of their tricycles contrasted with the din of the thundering city. As the success of the orchestra grows, the street people get worked up, unite, and regain hope—inspired to act on behalf of all the disenfranchised.
From the seedy sidewalks of Kinshasa to the hype clubs of Copenhagen, the limping odyssey of the Benda Bilili overthrows clichés regarding handicaps and misery. It dares us to question our own limits and our ability to bounce back.
—Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye
More About Benda Bilili
Watch the Benda Bilili! trailer in the Nat Geo video player.
Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye—the directors and writers of Benda Bilili!—explain how they found the men of Staff Benda and why they wanted to make a film about the remarkable band.
Go back to the homepage for the film.
Benda Bilili! is now playing in select theaters worldwide. Check our theater listings to see where it's playing in your area.
See Benda Bilili Live
Benda Bilili is touring the U.S. this fall. Visit their MySpace page to check their tour schedule.
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