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Photo: Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, the directors of the movie Benda Bilili!

Florent de la Tullaye (left) and Renaud Barret, the directors of Benda Bilili!

Photograph by Chris McPherson

Q&A WITH RENAUD BARRET & FLORENT DE LA TULLAYE

How did your film come into being?

Renaud Barret: In 2004, I was directing a small advertising agency in Paris and Florent was an international photojournalist. But we were both sick of what we were doing. We went to Kinshasa and, through encounters and people we met, we made a television documentary called La danse de Jupiter (Jupiter’s Dance), a long walk through the ghetto with musicians. It was during that time, in that energy, that we met the Staff Benda Bilili. We quickly decided to make an album with this incredible group, all the while filming them. In fact, we became producers because they told us that’s what we were! We stayed with them for a long time, often under the impression that their story was closely tied to ours. They always motivated us, even during the worst moments.

In 2007, we decided to make a film about the band, thinking we would stop after recording the album. Then concerts became a possibility in Europe, and we decided to carry on with what little means we had.

Florent de la Tullaye: Benda Bilili! is our first feature-length film for the cinema, but it’s our third film on Kinshasa, and we’re developing a fourth, thus developing a real insight into the workings of the city. We live with the characters we film, that’s what interests us. We work with lightweight cameras which allow us to work like photojournalists and always be ready when something is happening.

Barret: In any case, we couldn’t work with a conventional crew. Little by little, we’ve learned to speak Lingala, the official language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which allows us to enter into a different kind of relationship with the people. We have become experts on Kinshasa, and we believe that its people have suffered misrepresentation because of the endless clichés exploited by foreign television. That creates a certain anger among the population which one can tolerate as white people if you stay on the surface of things. We prefer seeking out the good and beautiful. Our luck lies in the fact that we work with musicians, and it’s thanks to them that people in the ghetto welcomed us with open arms. Kinshasa is a broken, shattered city, yet still very photogenic. Its people are Don Quixotes who are forever making up dreams. The Staff Benda Bilili made itself a dream, and it is now coming true.

How did you meet them?

Barret: A chance encounter during one of our many wanderings. We’d been hearing about them for a while, like a gang hard to localize. One night they were playing in front of a restaurant frequented by whites and the local brass. Their music immediately attracted us, with hints of Elmore James blues. The Staff knew us by reputation because we had spent a lot of time immersed, like total crazies, filming other Kinshasa bands.

De la Tullaye: The next day after meeting them, we started filming. Renaud was behind Coco, and to our bad luck he passed by the General Intelligence building with his camera. Police officers showed up on all sides, and the Staff’s reaction was violent. Coco even started to make a charge on the station in his wheelchair! That first day created a very strong tie between us; we helped each other out. The following year, we came back to Kinshasa with a bit of money to produce an album. After three days in the studio, a fire devastated the housing center where several members of the Staff were sleeping. The recording had to be interrupted because it had little connection with reality: They had nothing left at all. They were terribly upset because the fire came at the very moment they were fulfilling their dream. They had to stop sessions to find money and carry on living as best they could. In 2006, we returned to Kinshasa to make Victoire Terminus (Victory Terminus), a documentary on female boxers, and continued filming and helping the Staff. At the end of 2006, toward the end of our stay, Vincent Kenis (producer of the series Congotronics for the Belgian label Crammed Discs) came to record the Staff in the Kinshasa Zoological Park. And we came back in 2007 with enough money to take care of the musicians during the recording sessions. Their lives on the street were literally eating them alive. It’s an endless war. The public roads are abandoned, and it’s very hard for the disabled to get around. They’re real supermen.

When did Roger, the little satongé player, show up?

Barret: We’d already seen him in 2004 at a rural center where he’d come to get food. He played his curious instrument, and we wanted to talk to him but he disappeared before we met him again by chance in 2005. We told him to go see the Benda Bilili which he joined after an audition that blew everybody’s mind. Roger was a shégué, a kid living on the streets. Kinshasa has a population of around 10 million. It’s a devouring city in which families live on less than a dollar a month and where, most often, children don’t attend school. A lot of people are forced to put their kids on the streets because they can’t take care of them. Some decide to leave on their own because there’s nothing to eat at home and others are war orphans. The population of shégués is estimated at 100,000. They shine shoes or sell cigarettes on the outskirts of Kinshasa and return home on weekends with their paltry earnings to feed their family. The government deports them to Eastern Congo or forces them to join the military. This situation is a bomb waiting to explode because the kids who receive no help sometimes become violent and join street gangs. The members of the Staff Benda Bilili are kind of like their papas, especially Ricky.

De la Tullaye: The Staff Benda Bilili is a street syndicate that makes the law. They are highly organized because they need to stay tight to exist. They organize mutual aid. They need the children to get around, and the kids need the disabled to defend themselves, so this creates a small society consisting of papas and adopted children.

What do the songs of the Staff Benda Bilili talk about?

Barret: They’re an expression of the streets, primal and melancholic chant mixed with funk. The lyrics are simple in appearance, but they pass on influential educational messages to a largely illiterate population. Lingala is a rather poor language, so many of the meanings are hidden. The songs appear to be harmless, but in fact they show real force, humor, and a straightforward look at daily life in Kinshasa. For a long time we’ve been fans of Black music of many kinds, from funk to soul, and this city attracted us because of the rhythm, wealth, and vitality of the music scene. Today our goal is to help musicians we’ve met and filmed to record their albums and lead better lives.

De la Tullaye: While the Staff is a group of handicapped musicians, struck at an early age by polio, from the start they were gifted musicians who played in other groups. But they always showed up late, because time in Kinshasa is very elastic! So they decided to play together. The recording conditions of their album were very complicated, and it took us four years to finish. Same for the film: We played our time, waiting for things to take off for the Staff so that they could leave Kinshasa for a few concerts. The first big break was their show at the Belfort Eurockéennes in July 2009, one of the biggest music festivals in France. It’s really moving to share this adventure with the Benda Bilili, especially thinking back a few years when they told us, “With you, we’re going to make it!” The festival also allowed us to hear their music on good equipment for the first time and to realize their force on stage.

Barret: We followed the 2009 tour, which went all the way to Scandinavia. We found ourselves in a five-star hotel in Oslo, whereas not so long ago we were sharing cardboard boxes on the outskirts of Kinshasa. But when it comes down to it, the Benda Bilili don’t give a damn about where they are, even though they can be surprised by the conditions of life in Europe (and the existence of highways!). For them, success was never a matter of doubt. It’s normal, especially after such a life of hardship. Most of the musicians are mature and therefore remain clearheaded. They create small businesses with their families. Roger, who is soon to become a dad, for example, founded a video supply company that brings in a regular income for his family.

How did the group react to your film being selected to screen at the Cannes Film Festival?

De la Tullaye: They raised their canes at us and laughed! They were delighted for us. With earnings from the film, they want to found an organization and build a place to teach young musicians and pursue the Staff Benda Bilili adventure. Most of the members in the band have surpassed the average life expectancy of the Congolese, which is 45 years. They are aware that all could come to a stop soon. We want to return with them to Kinshasa to show the film. That’s the most important thing on our agenda right now. We’re convinced that this will allow the people to discover things they no longer pay attention to.

—Interview by Benoît Hické

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