Benda Bilili! - Blu-ray Review

'the group are allowed to shine and in the latter segments of the film they and their music really do shine'

A moving documentary about a group of Congolese paraplegics who attempt to make a name for themselves as musicians, Benda Bilili! is part music video, part social drama, part 'rise to fame' stardom documentary. What it certainly is not is tourist board video for the Democratic Republic of Congo. French directors Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye find the protagonists of their story living in near-squalor on the streets of the African country. They seem to have little social support and few possessions and each one of them achieves mobility only through incredible scooter-like contraptions which look either hand-built or at least hand-modified.

What transpires from this deprivation is a story of how real talent (and they are really talented) can get you to places you never hitherto dreamed of. The aspirations of the group are obvious and although they might not initially grasp the details (one of the group's side members talks of dreaming about going to Europe 'the country'), there's no doubt that the end goal is to get out of where they are at the moment and on to 'somewhere else'.

Barret and de La Tullaye deserve praise for the way in which the group's achievements are shown on screen. As the band's sponsors, they could have very easily made a film which is as much about them as it is about Benda Bilili! but they are pleasantly absent from the narrative, a voiceover the only occasional intrusion to lend full disclosure to the directing pair's involvement. Rightly, the group are allowed to shine and in the latter segments of the film they and their music really do shine.

The main problem with Benda Bilili! is its length which, though pleasingly compact, doesn't leave enough room to tell the musician's stories properly. During the opening third we're introduced to the characters individually but apart from the group's leader and virtuoso mono-chord player Roger, we never really get to know any of them to any great depth. There's also not enough of an examination of what happens to the group once they start to attain success. Brief mentions of them considering whether they can smoke marijuana in Denmark or how cold Germany will be are entertaining but by no means deep enough. There's a lot of looking forward to a goal but when that goal is attained Barret and de La Tullaye sadly seem to consider their job done, leaving a gaping hole in the film's final act.




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