A Different Kind of Movie About the Congo

A Different Kind of Movie About the Congo

By Pooja Bhatia


Because you’re literally holding a little bit of Congo in your hand. 

By Pooja Bhatia

Award-winning director Paul Freedman is best known for his films about the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, but his latest film takes a different tack. Merci Congo showcases the remarkable efforts of women and men in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and abroad who share a common desire to make a change. While eastern Congo in particular consistently ranks at or near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index — there’s little stable electricity, a lack of clean water, next to no education — it is also home to one of the biggest ironies: Congo is filthy rich when it comes to the mineral wealth buried in its soil.

You see, many of the phones, laptops and tablets from our most beloved brands carry a little bit of Congo in them. The quest to find and sell these precious metals has fueled decades of violence between armed groups, leaving more than 5 million Congolese dead and the country’s leader rolling in the dough. But Freedman shows us how the Congolese won’t give up, and how some of the biggest tech companies are supporting conflict-free mining in Congo. The point? There’s hope. And the story of Congo might just be changing. 

The following has been adapted from an audience Q&A at OZY Fusion Fest

OZY: Why did you approach this documentary differently from your films about Rwanda and Darfur?

Paul Freedman: Congo struck me so differently. As dangerous as it is, as mysterious as it is and as tragic as its history is, the resilience, the positivity, the resource that is the Congolese people is second to none. It seems to be sort of the granddaddy of all tragedies on the continent — 5 million dead in the last 20 years and 10 million dead under King Leopold II [of Belgium, who colonized and exploited the region for his personal profit in the late 1800s]. It is staggering what has happened there. But I want people to see what I saw, which is someone like Neema Namadamu, the polio survivor who is empowering other Congolese women, one after another. She feels lucky to have been born with polio, because it meant she wasn’t going to get married off at age 13 and her life would’ve been over because she’d be a slave to her husband. What a way to approach life.

OZY: Our favorite scene is when a group of older women are learning about computers, and it starts with how to physically open the laptop. What role does that scene play?

P.F.: Neema has brought these Congolese minerals back in the form of 10-year-old laptops. Many of these women are uneducated and have been enslaved by their husbands and families all their lives. But within minutes, they seem to get an inch taller. They went home that night and they told their families that they knew how to operate “the machine.” Now, the husbands couldn’t say that. Within a couple of days, some of the women were Facebook-chatting with relatives in London and Uganda, and all of a sudden they had something the men didn’t. There was a different energy on that plateau that week.

OZY: In the beginning of the film, a lot of tech companies are uninterested in Congo, but you chronicle some remarkable changes. Where are we now?

P.F.: In 2008, the Enough Project began advocating that tech companies look for conflict minerals in their products, which directly influenced Intel to begin its conflict-free initiative. When the Dodd-Frank Act was signed into law in 2010, it put additional pressure on tech companies to look at their supply chains. Many companies simply pulled out of Congo, because that was the easiest way to comply with the new legislation. Unfortunately, that meant all of a sudden you have 300,000 miners who get $2 a day now getting no dollars a day. Companies like Intel, HP and Apple decided to stay and to make some big changes in the way they address their supply chain. Supply chain is key. You can find out where it starts. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

OZY: Could you speak a bit about how the minerals trade pertains to the current political situation in Congo

P.F.: President Joseph Kabila came to office as the eldest son of the previous president, who was assassinated. He came to office with nothing, from a very rural area. Today, his estimated net worth is about $15 billion. In terms of politics in Congo, we could talk about the interventions of the Rwandans in eastern Congo, the lack of intervention on the part of the international community or what colonialism did to the Congolese through Leopold, but the biggest single problem in Congo right now is the governance and the lack of it. It’s at the bottom of all development indexes.

OZY: What’s your next project going to be?

P.F.: This project got me really interested in supply chains — our clothes, our food. Who’s getting hurt so I can have sea bass tonight? Anti-Slavery International has a lot of resources devoted to the fishing industry in Southeast Asia and the enslavement there of the people who get our fish. That’s an issue that really strikes me. I’m also very interested in the empowerment of women on the African continent. Very few Congolese girls get more [education] than a few years of elementary school. We’ve seen the mess that the men have made in Congo. The power of women is the biggest resource in Congolese society that has not been exploited.

To learn more about Merci Congo, visit www.mercicongo.com.