Elephant’s Dream, Congo’s Reality And Kristof Bilsen’s Multi-Dimensional Documentary

Lieutenant©Kristof Bilsen

They wait in their empty shell of state-owned institutions with an Elephant’s Dream. But wait for what is the question. What is coming?

The colonial past of The Republic of Congo has often been simplistically represented by the Western world with objectified stories of violence and crime. But Belgian director, Kristof Bilsen is changing the narrative in his latest documentary, Elephant’s Dream. Here, we witness the modern-day fossilization of Africa’s Kinshasa and the civil servants trapped in their ossified daily mundane existence inside of the post-colonial state.

For three years, Bilsen filmed his protagonists – Henriette, Simon and the Lieutenant – a post office clerk, railway station employee and a fireman – as they maintain their stale Kinshasa careers, to capture the Elephant’s Dream. And through Bilsen’s success in his attempts to turn objectification into subjectification of his heroes, he highlights the complex multi-dimensional feelings of Congo’s post-colonial truths.

Dust and cobwebs clothe the shelves of the post-office, long grass covers the rusted railway tracks and the firehouse has burned down, yet Congo’s civil servants work day in and day out in their routine metropolis, while balancing their responsibilities with their hope for a more abundant future.

Elephant’s Dream feels urgent when we see ourselves in the shoes of Henriette, Simon and the Lieutenant and find ourselves in our own hindering institutions. Here, we unite. For technology is a gift and a curse no matter where we are. Time swallows us all. And the Elephant’s Dream resides as a small facet in every one of us.

In preparation for his breakout year, director Kristof Bilsen opens up about the film, it’s conception, the poetic symbolism that surrounds it & the protagonists changing the narrative of Kinshasa:

How did you get involved in documentary film-making? I’ve been working a lot in Belgium theatre and contemporary dance, making visuals and video work for theatre. And almost by coincidence, I started to make a film about female detainees at a prison in Ghent, where they are convicted for murder. That sort of derived out of a theatre performance that we made within the prison. So, prisoners playing themselves almost and playing their own stories. And that kind of inspired me to look into the whole craft of documentary film-making and almost being spoiled, like if I’m making a film, I can almost focus on one complex reality and filter the rest out for a while and try and really grasp that aspect of reality. Then I started applying to the film school in the UK, which took me two years, because it was quite a specific school to get in. The [National Film & Television School] was really focused on anything to do with observational film-making. Almost, you would say that they have an anthropological background in their schooling. Rather than them having the ego of the director and the concepts out front, it’s more about how you look into the world and how you take in what you see and what you experience. So a lot of it is just trusting the process in making a film. Of course, you have your ideas and your concepts, but it’s constantly questioned by going through the process of making a film.

How did you come across the stories of your protagonists – Henriette, Simon and the Lieutenant – and decide to make a film about them?  I kind of made a film in the past called The Perfect Belgian, which was about my quirky road trip through the country that has always been an interesting situation, because it’s a lot of tree regions in a tiny, tiny country. And I started questioning the national identity. While researching the film, I came across the whole colonial legacy and thinking of, what is left of this whole nation, in the old colonies. And so I started making a film in Kinshasa in this old post office. That was kind of the first step. But it more and more became the motivation that by making the film, that I was sort of wanting to tell a different story besides the films you see about the Congo and the horrible stories of the east and violence and rape and rebels and all this kind of anonymous violence, where people make their image the heart of darkness in Africa. So that is one section of the story. The other section is the poverty and in poverty there is creativity. And I felt that while trying to tell the story of the daily life of civil servants living in a conflict country, that they are also individuals having their hopes and dreams. They are three-dimensional characters. It is not just anonymous suffering. There is a lot more to be seen.

How long did it take you to film, because of the beauty of the film I find is the intimacy that the characters share and that you would have to earn your characters’ trust to be such a fly on the wall. It was shot in three years’ time. The first shoot was in 2010 and then I started shooting in the post office in 2012 for two months and then in 2013 for two months. It also allowed for the characters and me to find out and see where we were with things. Because like you said, it wasn’t so straight forward – me being a Belgian and whites going into a situation where you’re filming civil servants who are in a situation where they have to show the painful reality.

Henriette_Post©Kristof Bilsen

As a filmmaker, was it difficult for you to stay connected while they showed this painful reality? In a way, it is easier if you film a clear conflict or a clear drama. It’s clear in that you can show something that is at stake. You can say, “that’s the good one and that’s the bad one,” whereas in this situation, it was more conflicted, because it was more of a complex reality. We’re talking about post-colonial violence in a way still. You are filming people in institutions that we, back in the day, started with. And you’re basically asking them for the permission to film them that way. That’s really not so black and white, but rather complex in layers.

The title – Elephant’s Dream – would you like to expand? I don’t want you to have a specific notion to it. I think it’s like the film, visceral and poetic. It is an open invitation to join the characters. The Congo is a huge country with all the different African countries surrounding it. It could refer to the elephant’s memory and the colonial memory that is still present. And the huge dreams and aspirations that are present in a country that size. It’s like what Frantz Fanon once said, “Africa is shaped like a gun, and Congo is the trigger.” Rather than pitching it as a failed state film, I think it’s much more nuanced. It invites the audience into a world that – although it has this huge weight of history – is not so different from ours and thus allows for dialog, for openness and reflection. About where we are at, where we were, and where we’re heading as human beings. In short, the whole issue of decolonizing our way of looking at Africa should include reconciliation and maybe this film helps that too.

I noticed a lot of contrast and poetic irony in the film, particularly with the children’s energy juxtaposed with the workers, along with the music that was chosen, specifically the song that Simon chooses to sing at the end. Did capturing that contrast come naturally, or was it something that you were aware of and intentionally attempted to capture? It kind of came naturally, because it is a contrast that you really feel if you are present in a huge city like Kinshasa. In this city, all these different energies come together. There is constantly this shift between past, present and future and it’s a very vulnerable balance. An absurd kind of cocktail. I think that is happening all over the world, not just in the Congo. We are all trying to find the balance between the problems of the past, life in the present and aspirations for the future. It’s a constant dialectic between all those layers, which makes it charming but complex.

What did your subjects teach you while filming? Henriette would say, “It is so hard to explain to people that we are still here and we are healthy and alive. We are present.” They are very aware of the image that is being portrayed, of wars and tragedies and rebels. And they are like, “Jesus, we’re here.” It is important to have dialogues and realize the things that are at stake. That is something that I was really touched by, their awareness of the imagery that is exported by the west. She watched it in Kinshasa and said, “I really hope people enjoy the film and see it as a beautiful film, but at the same time, every so often, they really empathize with the horrible feeling of being stuck and being in limbo, because that is something that we have to go through day by day.” Even in documentaries, there’s an obsession with beginning, middle and end films, but I really learned from them that, sorry, life isn’t that easy. It’s not that straightforward.

Visit here for Elephant’s Dream screenings & more from Kristof Bilsen


Tue, Apr 28, 6:15 PM –  Scotiabank Theatre, Cinema 7

Thu, Apr 30, 5:00 PM,  Scotiabank Theatre, Cinema 4

Sat, May 2, 7:00 PM, Scotiabank Theatre, Cinema 3

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