The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Berlinale 2019: System K

Reviewed by Simon Ramshaw.

Director Renaud Barret
Length 94 mins
Certificate
Rating *********-
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article As a general rule, the best documentaries are the ones in which the documentarian does little more than simply hold a camera and point it at the subject. Take Kim Longinotto, for example (whose latest film, Shooting the Mafia, will likely be reviewed here later this week), who employs a distinctly observational view of her subjects, respectfully but honestly capturing whatever occurs in front of the camera. Renaud Barret not only graduates from the same school of thought as Longinotto, but can now consider himself in the same league as her, following his beautiful and bruising Congolese documentary, System K.

With a title that refers to the impenetrable system of poverty within Kinshasa, the country’s capital, Barret turns his focus to a very specific aspect of this chaotic leviathan: its art scene. Headed by the deeply charismatic Freddie Tsimba, a number of passionate street artists use the broken waste materials around them to create abrasive and challenging pieces that often divide public opinion in the city’s seething shanty towns. These sculptures, costumes, and chunks of hardware are often wince-inducingly dangerous, with the recurring presence of the eccentric ‘Kongo Astronaute’ constantly hand-making live electrical currents around his head so he can light up the night. The film is full to the brim with this kind of reckless vision, and there’s rarely a single shot that isn’t populated by an eye-widening work of art.

However, something strange sprang to mind about halfway through this documentary for this reviewer. System K locates its central thesis in the fact that the Democratic Republic of Congo is technically the richest country in Africa, given that it sits upon a wealth of precious metal ore and other resources. But none of this wealth goes to the people; instead, they are stuck in a perpetual cycle of poverty, and all they get in return are the scraps of their exports that are dumped back on them. Bearing this in mind, what is that thesis if not a sobering anti-thesis to Black Panther (2018), a film that depicts a fictional African nation maintaining full control of their incredible wealth for the safety and prosperity of their own people. There was a strong vein of criticism about Black Panther regarding the significance of ‘Afro-futurism’ in its design and narrative, and System K provides the ‘reality’ side to this coin. The art created by the people of Kinshasa often has inflections of science-fiction designs and is built with a palpable sense of improvisation; it’s uncertain if any of the art will physically hold together. It’s this kind of gutsy intensity, captured by Barret on the streets of Kinshasa, that ultimately gives System K its shocking, eye-widening quality, and it’s his intimate lensing of the scenarios that grounds what is a baffling unreality with stomach-churning grit.

There are images in here that will no doubt shock and disgust many (one act of sustained animal cruelty is agonisingly portrayed), but this is nonetheless an important film that captures a live-wire political moment in a country stripped and dismantled by the Western world. It’s a film of furious self-representation and self-determination; its eloquent yet angry voices screaming out to be heard over the distinctly ‘white’ noise.

This review was published on February 15, 2019.

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