Benda Bilili!

Benda Bilili!


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Following war, flood, volcanic eruption and numerous other disasters, it's rare to see a feelgood film about the Congo - rarer still when it's a documentary. Making one is risky - a story like this may be hard to resist, but how does one balance the thrills of success against the realities of life for most people in that devastated country? It can be difficult to celebrate positive spirit without eliding that suffering which people in richer countries already tend to forget. Here director Renaud Barret treads a careful path, resulting in a film that captures wider realities whilst providing an engaging, entertaining story of one band's search for fame.

That band is Benda Bilili, a collection of disabled street musicians brought together by 'street daddy' Leon Libaku, a man whose means may be restricted but whose ambitions know no limits. Meeting a kid who busks for a few pennies with an instrument made from a tin can and a bit of wire, Leon sees a guitarist who will wow the concert crowds of Europe. And determined as he is, he just might be right.

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There are elements here of the classic rock n' roll story. A mother concerned about the family reputation could be anywhere. You can't mess around in Europe, she says. They have the law. Our heroes remind each other that Europeans have a funny attitude to weed, so they'd better not get caught smoking. Girls are not a problem as long as you're on tour, they say - "If she gets too clingy, just say 'I'm off to Germany now.'" Cutting their first record they're already dreaming of the heights of stardom. Of course the reality is that, at European festivals, there are a lot of bands with a sound not so different from theirs, so we wait nervously to see if their dreams will be shattered. But Benda Bilili are a tough lot. Several of them have survived polio. They've suffered discrimination all their lives because of their disabilities. Some of that anger goes into their stronger songs. They take things in their stride. A man's life is not over, they remind us, until he's dead.

What is Europe, anyway? The kids aren't sure. It's a country. Why does everybody want to go there? Because some people can get in and some can't. Not a bad assessment. The film is full of little gems like this, fragments of conversation illuminating the reality of lives lived largely in the moment. Most of these kids have no education and they're hungry for any information they can get. They dream of owning houses and being able to provide for their families. One can only hope that this groundedness will protect them from the other challenges of fame.

As a straightforward band movie, Benda Bilili! is nothing particularly unusual, engaging and entertaining enough but not destined for the top. As a portrait of the people of Kinshasa, it is rich and insightful. If you have troubles of your own, you may well find it inspiring.

Reviewed on: 06 Feb 2011
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A group of homeless blues musicians disabled by childhood polio join forces with a street kid with a home made instrument and make plans to tour Europe.
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Director: Florent de la Tullaye, Renaud Barret

Year: 2010

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: France

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If you like this, try:

Children Of The Congo