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Film students in Congo seek a cinema to bring their stories to life

October 13, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
Filmmaker Petna Ndaliko still remembers sneaking into the movie theater as a boy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But in the wake of turbulence and civil war, the cinema in the city of Goma has long been closed. Now, Ndaliko is trying to bring the magic of movies back to his country through a film school and an annual arts festival. Contributing editor Soledad O’Brien reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to part two of our series Congo’s Hope.

Most of us take for granted the chance to catch a movie at the local theater. Tonight, we bring you the story of one man’s attempt to bring cinema back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place that has seen so much destroyed by war.

PBS NewsHour contributing editor Soledad O’Brien reports.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Cinema Virunga is just another shell of a building on another unpaved street in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

PETNA NDALIKO, Artistic Director, Yole!Africa: Here is where we used to buy our tickets from.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Oh, this is the ticket booth?



PETNA NDALIKO: Yes. But now it’s the main entry.


SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Yet filmmaker Petna Ndaliko still sees something special behind these rusty gates. He remembers the time he snuck in as a boy.

Do you remember the first time you came to watch a film?

PETNA NDALIKO: Oh, yes, I remember. I was still young. And I got in illegally. I wasn’t even supposed to be in here to watch that film.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: What was the movie?

PETNA NDALIKO: The film was “Black Jim Le Magnifique.” It was a film about kung fu. The main character was a black guy, and it was so good for me to see a film where a black guy was the main character, and it was like — yes, he was, like, kicking everybody.


SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Cinema Virunga was a rare sight, the only modern theater for hundreds of miles. It had opened in 1955, when Congo was a Belgian colony, to serve the booming population of Goma, a city in the shadow of a volcano that beckoned tourists.

Inspired by Cinema Virunga, Ndaliko became a filmmaker. Yet, by the 1990s, Cinema Virunga itself was no more. The Rwandan genocide had forced a million refugees into Goma, and the cinema became refugee housing.

After the crisis, a series of civil wars kept it closed.

What’s lost when you don’t have cinema?

PETNA NDALIKO: Not having a cinema, it is missing that moment of a wow, that wow, dream, and start dreaming big, being capable of imagining things from just your room and then come up with this crazy, beautiful idea, and that’s — that is what cinema brings to people.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Now Ndaliko wants to bring that wow moment back to the Congo.

PETNA NDALIKO: Doing well.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: It needs a little work.


SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: The building briefly housed a nightclub, then government offices, now storage. Ndaliko has raised just $30,000 of the $500,000 he needs for it to become a cinema.

How much work does bringing back the cinema require?

PETNA NDALIKO: Wiring of installation for power, we have to redo all of it. We have also to isolate, so that we can have a good sound isolation inside here. And then all the speakers, we have to put new ones. We have to add all the curtains. The roof, we sort of have to redo the entire roofing.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Ndaliko is not the only one dreaming of a cinema. He started a film school in Goma 10 years ago, Yole!Africa, where there are dozens of students with a message in search of an audience.

MAN: I dreamed one day to become a filmmaker to change the way of thinking of my people.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Young filmmakers like Yannick Chishibanji have a new narrative to share: that Goma, their city, is coming back.

MAN: When you have 20 years, 25 years, all this generation was grown in the war. We didn’t have so much good examples.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: This new Goma is emerging from war. The students’ films touch on modern issues, like women in the workplace, and reconciliation. A cinema would bring those stories to life.

Do you think it makes a difference if they see a film here, or if maybe one day there was a big cinema where the community could go?

MAN: If there is one cinema, I think that, every night, we can hope that another person who have been changed.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: You think the cinema is powerful enough to change the hearts and minds of people?

MAN: Of course.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Getting there is half the battle. To make a film, the school uses a gas-fueled generator to power cameras and computers, because the electricity often goes out. The Wi-Fi is also unreliable.

So lay out for me the things that are the daily challenges to being a filmmaker.

MAN: If you want to go somewhere and you want papers, because everywhere, you would find policeman, soldiers, it’s very hard, because we have to give money to everybody.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Chishibanji made a film anyway, all about his country. It’s about a man choosing between reconciliation and revenge after his family is attacked.

MAN: Sometimes, we think that it is the other person who is our problem.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: And, in your film, who is the problem?

MAN: The problem is the way of seeing things, the communitarianism, the tribalism.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Communitarianism and tribalism, without Cinema Virunga, the only public space for a film about those issues might be a street cinema with blaring sound and blurry images.

There are places to watch films now. There are sort of makeshift movie houses, if you will. Right? Why is a cinema better than that, or different from that?

PETNA NDALIKO: Because the cinema take you into the film itself. And watching on the DVD, the quality is not the same. And also create this space where a family can sit and enjoy and have their popcorn, it is a different experience, and then also be in a cinema and feel safe with other people. It is very important psychologically for the people around here.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: What do you mean?

PETNA NDALIKO: Yes, like, be in this dark place, you are with more than 200 people, and then you still feel safe.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Does that not happen in Goma?

PETNA NDALIKO: Not often, not often.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: And is that because of all the conflict?

PETNA NDALIKO: Because of the conflicts.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Yole!Africa tries to create that feeling with an annual festival of film and art, with deejays pumping and music thumping, kids spinning wildly in the air, with a dance contest.

Ndaliko’s wife, Cherie, sees the difference public art can make.

CHERIE RIVERS NDALIKO, Executive Director, Yole!Africa: It changes people’s lives. It’s incredible to see people come in having no sense of confidence, no sense of their own self-worth, because they have only seen images of themselves that portray them as worthless. And it’s incredible to see what happens when they learn that they can tell their own story, and in their version of the story, they can be the hero.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Without cinema, the best Yole!Africa can do is fly in a blow-up screen from North Carolina. It deflates if the power fails, fights to be heard over street noise, and the Ndaliko’s worry about being out at night.

But as that familiar rectangle of light appears, something magical is happening too, a wow moment, even if just once a year.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Soledad O’Brien in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow night, Soledad concludes our series Congo’s Hope with a story about the gorillas in the Congo’s Virunga National Park.