Benda Bilili! (2010)

7:04 PM

Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here every day. Benda Bilili! (2010), a real-life rags to riches story of disabled street musicians, opens on the dimly-lit desolate streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A young boy examines his surroundings, calling his home a "concrete jungle", and points out a passerby, claiming he could steal his bag and the millions inside it. "It's a system…the only system." Our initial introduction to the Democratic Republic of Congo is far from cheerful. It's a wonder this documentary ever manages to take a happy turn...but it does. When we meet our title heroes, the members of Staff Benda Bilili, a musical group made up of impoverished wheelchair-confined polio victims, the infectious beats of their music and the raw, irrepressible optimism of its members is astounding.

There must be an innate desire in first world documentary filmmakers to find little-known musicians and make them famous in North America and Europe. From the smooth cuban jazz of Havana's forgotten Buena Vista Social Club to last year's Oscar-winning documentary, Searching for Sugarman, this trend shows no signs of slowing down. Despite both the members of the Buena Vista Social Club and Rodriguez aka Sugarman's successes in Cuba and South Africa respectively, apparently you're not successful until you're known to a first-world, predominately caucasian audience. Too often a feel-good story about a rise to fame includes a Western influence being the only catalyst for change in a dim situation. Benda Bilili!, while following the trend in undiscovered music docs, dissimilarly never falters from its attention to the people of Staff Benda Bilili. The circumstances of the situations of its members, paired with their prevailing passion for music creates an all-encompassing portrait without an obtrusive opinion from the filmmakers. When we first met this group, local people gathered around to dance and sing along with their music. Staff Benda Bilili always had a fan club, but now that fan club includes the rest of the world, and for that, the filmmakers, Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye, have provided an invaluable service.

In particular, there is a lot of hope for Roger, a young boy adopted into this band of misfits, armed with a dream of supporting his family and a homemade instrument, crafted from an old milk can. We watch Roger transform from a little boy, trepidatiously plucking along with the elders, to a wild Angus Young type, spinning in circles on a concert stage, wailing on his milk can. Roger and his monochord are the literal high notes of this documentary, keeping an optimistic beat with "the thing that goes gling, gling". It's inspiring to know the story behind these notes.

Periodically, the focus is pulled from Staff Benda Bilili, to a handful of children who hang out on the edges of the group during rehearsals at the Kinshasa Zoo. These kids talk amongst themselves, addressing everything from politics to the existential, pondering the state of their country, and then taunting a monkey in the same breath. One young boy says "I see people who are ready to die to go to Europe", referring to the anticipated departure of Staff Benda Bilili to France. You can tell that seeing this local group make it across the pond is a much-needed inspiration. They now can see that anything is possible, and so do we.

Benda Bilili! is an inspiring show of the power of music and communal support in the face of the rise and fall from destitution. From the toe-tapping beats of the film's stars, to their climactic success, Benda Bilili! is an honest, and genuinely uplifting documentary that, like the group's debut album, is Trés trés fort (very, very, strong). 

My rating: 7 cats out of 10

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