Interview translated from French by Hélène Ballis
For six deadly days in June 2000, armed forces from Rwanda and Uganda clashed on the streets of Kisangani, the third largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This Six-Day War, as it has come to be known, also because it shares the same dates as the 1967 six-day conflict between Israel and Arab states, was part of the wider Second Congo War, a chronic conflict over mineral deposits that at some point involved nine African countries and over 20 armed groups. By the time the forces were spent, over 1,000 deaths were recorded and about 3,000 people were injured.
Born in 1984, Dieudo Hamadi was a teenager attending school in Kisangani when the war broke out. As the eldest, he had to locate his younger siblings and guide them home safely. It was an arduous 24-hour trip that had them hiding in churches until it was safe to get home. Thankfully Hamadi’s immediate family was spared the worst of the violence. He would go on to study multiple audiovisual disciplines before starting his career as a director working in music videos and commercials.
With seven films credited to him as director, Hamadi has emerged as one of the most prominent chroniclers of contemporary DRC. His interests lie in social justice issues and his documentaries are powerful witnesses to history. Atalaku (2013) chronicles the instability of the DRC’s electoral process while Kinshasa Makambo (2018) details the efforts of civil society activists speaking out against a tyrannic system.
It wasn’t until over a decade later that Hamadi would revisit this tragedy. It happened by chance too. While shooing his 2017 documentary Mama Colonel about a committed policewoman struggling to stop sexual abuse in her new outpost, Hamadi returned to Kisangani. There, he encountered some victims of the six-day war who had organised themselves into an association to fight for the compensation that was due to them. In 2005, a ruling from the International Court of Justice demanded that Uganda pay reparations, running into billions of dollars claimed by the DRC. A portion of these funds was to be directly paid as compensation to the victims. Twenty years later, not one cent has been paid.
Hamadi’s latest, Downstream to Kinshasa, which in 2020 became the first film from the DRC to be listed in the Official Selection at Cannes, chronicles the efforts of the survivors of this war to get their due. With no one willing to advocate for them, the survivors organise themselves and take a perilous journey downstream to the capital in Kinshasa to claim their due.
Hamadi films this particular sequence with an iPhone and outlines, rather dispassionately, the terrible state of the DRC’s infrastructure. The survivors are unsinkable though and refuse to give up hope. They put their faith in the political process and remain active actors in their struggle, making their own efforts to effect the political change that could be useful to their cause.
On the other hand, they also make use of art as advocacy. Downstream to Kinshasa opens with some of these characters who are members of Troupe Les Zombies de Kisangi, a theatrical performing troupe comprising survivors of the Six-Day War. Through their incredibly powerful performances, they not only find healing and keep their stories alive, they are also able to earn some income, however little.
Hamadi’s experience shines through Downstream to Kinshasa as the film is clear enough to highlight the pain of its subjects without robbing them of their agency. It is a fine rope to walk and Hamadi does it quite effectively, painting a powerful portrait of resistance and the necessity of advocacy in creating any kind of change.
It isn’t quite clear how the journey is going to end for these fighters and even Hamadi isn’t entirely hopeful that they will get the justice they deserve. But for them, to not do anything at all would be unthinkable. It is their country after all and even though the system has failed them repeatedly, their cause is one that is worth fighting for.
Congratulations are in order. This is the first time a film from the Congo DRC film will score the Cannes label. It comes at an uncertain time however. Where are you mentally and how are you processing it?
It was a huge pleasure to be in competition in Cannes and to get the festival’s label. I have been doing this work for 10 years now so this recognition makes me work harder.
Cannes didn’t happen and you could not travel. Was it a blow to you in terms of how you expected the reception of the film to be like?
I never experienced presenting a film at Cannes so I don’t quite know what that is like or what I missed out on. But what I know is the privilege of having the label is real and has been of impact. The first Congolese film in the biggest festival in the world is something to be proud of, I think. For many Congolese in Kinshasa and all over the world, it is important to them. There is really no way to know how the reception would have been. Maybe the press would have been more overwhelming if the physical festival had happened. But the label is huge, nevertheless.
The film was also selected at TIFF where it screened for press and industry online. How have you been navigating these online presentations?
Usually when I finish a film and have to present it to the public, I have to get on airplanes and move from one location to the other. It gets exhausting after a while. This time I am doing the same thing only from my home and it is okay because this time I can rest. I can also keep on working while promoting the film online.
What I find with physical screenings and premieres, in Cannes and Toronto for instance, there is usually a cap on African press that can attend. This is so even for industry and audiences because of travel challenges. On the other hand, online screenings might appear more accessible but there is the issue of data costs and infrastructure challenges. Has it always been a challenge getting your films to audiences in the DRC and in Africa even before the pandemic?
With this film as well as with my other films, it has been hard screening them in the DRC because there is a lack of infrastructure to support this. As a result, my films have been screened mostly in schools and small cultural centres. So, for me there is no difference at all. The most important thing for me is that the movies exist and maybe sometime in the near or far future, people will be able to see them.
Can you recall where you were when the Six-Day war started?
I was living in Kinsangani when the war started. Like many children at the time, I was in school and I had to find my two younger brothers and guide them home safely. It took us 24 hours to get home because we had to hide in churches for some time till it was safe enough to go outside. On getting home we stayed indoors for all six days. We were fortunate that my immediate family was spared. We lost extended family members of course but none from our immediate family.
Must have been traumatic. You were a child, but did you carry this story with you all the while knowing that you were going to come back to it?
I am almost ashamed to say that it is definitely by chance that I came back to this story. It was purely by chance. Like many people in Kisangani, I had consciously or unconsciously chosen to forget this incident. Today almost no one is talking about this war and it is almost like it never happened. The memory has been almost erased. Three years ago, when I came back to Kisangani, I met members of this association who were disabled and I realised I wanted to make a film about this story and the people.
This Six-Day war was part of a larger battle for resource control and it bleeds into a conversation about national memory. Is there a systemic or structural reason that this story was soon forgotten or was it just a way for people to cope with multiple trauma?
There are two aspects to this. For this particular war, many powerful people have interests in people forgetting that it happened, so they are actively working on erasure and it is hard to fight that. But for many Congolese people who survived the war or were victims of it, it is just because it is easier to forget. It is also a way to hope that tomorrow will be better. But I don’t think that forgetting is the solution. Choosing to forget only makes history repeat itself. That is why I chose to tell this story because we need to remember, to know where we are headed.
I think that your film sits in the space between cultural memory and activism. Do you see yourself as an activist demanding justice or just a witness to history?
I see myself as a filmmaker first and foremost. When you live in a country like the Congo it doesn’t matter if you are a painter or a carpenter, you cannot be neutral. I am just trying to be useful to my country, to my society and to myself. It is also important to keep memory alive and I think that Congolese society lacks this memory. Films, particularly documentaries, are important in keeping memory alive.
Your filmmaking seems to be shaped primarily by your environment. Would you be making documentaries if you weren’t living in the Congo do you think?
For me it is not so much a matter of fiction or documentary as it is the movies reflecting the realities of the country. I make movies because reality inspires me and they could take whatever form serves the story best. If it seems like I have chosen to make only documentaries, it is only because it is the easiest way to make movies in the Congo. Documentaries are cheaper for one. Financing fiction films here is almost impossible.
How did this film come to life from the moment you ran into the subjects and decided you wanted to tell their story?
I met the members of the association when I was shooting Mama Colonel but it didn’t happen immediately as I had to wait to find the best way to tell the story. One day I got a call from a member of the association intimating me that they were planning to travel from Kisangani to Kinshasa by boat to claim their rights and their money. I thought that was fascinating and really important that they were doing so and I was immediately seduced by the idea of a boat trip and I knew that this was the form that the story had to take.
With that impression in mind, was there a way that the project was begging to be filmed and how did you approach this? What was the most surprising element when you commenced production?
The idea of the trip may have been seductive but in reality it was quite the opposite. It was a difficult shoot, very chaotic, very intense, much more than I imagined. It wasn’t even a real boat, it was a strange contraption that was cobbled together. The people who were travelling with them didn’t want to be filmed so I had to use my iPhone for huge parts of it. But I like how it was a moment of realisation for both the film’s characters and the rest of the people on the boat. They were all going through similar frustrations and the country isn’t working for any of them. You should see the near extreme conditions that people have to suffer through to travel between two major cities in the same country. People were packed like animals and the weather wasn’t helpful as well. It was a revelation to witness firsthand how bad the situation has become. It was difficult but at the end of the day, I felt it was the only way to tell this story.
I find it frustrating that the characters put their trust in politicians and yet come out disappointed time and time again. Do you think that the solution is going to be a political one?
You have to remember that the origin of their trip to Kinshasa is the decision by the International Court of Justice that Uganda compensate the DRC with a huge sum of money, some of which should go directly to the victims and survivors of the war. 20 years later, there has been no money, no sympathy, nothing. So it is in response to this court ruling that they are acting. The political institution is the only one that can make this happen in this case.
The struggle is still ongoing. From what you saw on the ground are you optimistic that the survivors will get their due?
I hope that they will. But personally, if something were to happen today or tomorrow it will not be solely because of this particular struggle. There used to be hundreds, maybe thousands of people fighting for them but today there is only a handful. They are also up against former generals and lords of war who have become politicians and ministers today and these people are just not interested in seeing any justice served. There are some associations helping them advocate for this so one hopes it works out for good.
Was it important that you, a native of Kisangani, should be the one to tell this story and what is it that you brought that another filmmaker might have missed?
Very few films have been made about the Six-Day war. A few books have been written but the cinematic contribution is almost nonexistent. It could be me or someone else but the most important thing for me is that the story is not forgotten. I consider it a privilege to contribute in some way and I hope that people from Kisangani and the DRC look at the film and recognise themselves.
I found the scenes with the support group performances striking and a welcome complement. Was it their way of healing through the pain or making sure their stories remain heard?
The function of the theatre, for them, evolved with time. At first it was therapy to help them heal, then it became a tool of sensitisation to keep the memory of the war and what they went through alive. When I met them, they were also trying to make some money out. They had made some sketches from their own personal stories and were using them to entertain people. So, I thought that it would be great to include it.