Benda Bilili! (2010)
Dir: Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye
This is one of the most engaging documentaries I have seen in a long time, and the music is quite something else!
Staff Benda Bilili (roughly translated as ‘look beyond appearances’ in Lingala) are a group of (at the time) amateur musicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most of whom are left disabled from polio and use superb tricycle wheelchairs to get everywhere. This film watches as the group led by ‘Papa Ricky’ are helped to record their first album, and then rise to fame with performances around the world.
One of the first things that stands out in this film, which is after all a musical documentary, is the songs, that all have real messages in their lyrics. Some are written to inform and educate, others just to convey a story and explain what life is like for the musicians. The instruments that the group plays are also distinctive in often being made from junk, and thus producing a distinctive sound.
Though it initially follows Papa Ricky, founder of the group, the filmmakers also met a young boy called Roger, and the story turns to follow his inclusion into the group playing his simple monochord instrument made from what is primarily a tin can and some wire. We see how he grows up, now with the support of the group, and the huge pressure put on him by his family. What made me smile was how Roger goes ‘Hendrix’ at their first proper gig, really playing to the crowd who seem to love it. In fact, all of them seem to instinctively know how to entertain, and their performances towards the end of the film are amazing, it may just be a matter of time before a concert film is produced.
These men have a fantastic work ethic, they practice almost every day and are determined to make things work out so they can provide more for their families. At one point in the film, not to spoil it too much, there is a disaster that affects them, and while it’s something that would stop most people from doing whatever they were and completely change their life, the musician just says that there’s not much that can be done and that things happen.
The filmmakers are very good in holding back, they stay out of the lens, not interviewing, not reporting, just observing how things unfold. It’s a decision that really works brilliantly with the group who at first are a little unsure how to handle cameras following them. It’s this style that made me warm to them very quickly, and enforces how extraordinary this men are as people and musicians.