Once in a great while, a book, a movie, or a play comes along that creates a such an extraordinary response that all you want to do is shout from the hilltops so the experience can be shared with everyone you know. This is the way I feel about Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer’s ethereal documentary, Kinshasa Symphony, a praise song for L’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbangusite and the indomitable resilience of its conductor and members—two hundred strong. Overcoming enormous obstacles—including war and repeated plundering—the symphony has continued for fifteen years, providing classical music for audiences in the Congo that have almost no awareness that such music exists.
Armand Diangienda, the founder and the conductor, was once an airline pilot, whose grandfather—according to the project’s website—”entrusted him with the mission of founding an orchestra.” He himself had no formal musical training. There were times at the beginning, when twenty violinists would share five violins and they’d pass them from person to person. Brake cables of old bicycles were used to replace broken strings, the wheel rim from a bus to restore the sound of a kettle drum. One man dismantled a base violin to study every part in order to build these instruments himself. During the course of the film, the story loops back to him numerous times to show him cutting the wood and then painstakingly constructing every part of the instrument.
The building of the base is inspiring in and of itself, but so is all of the film. The opening shot depicts one of the musicians—who is also an electrician—high up on a pole, connecting wires together for the next outdoor concert. We are told that whenever the lights go out during a performance, the other musicians look at him as he leaves temporarily to try to restore the electricity. The violist/electrician is like virtually all of the members of the orchestra, who have long work days, sometimes beginning as early as 5:30 A.M., followed by rehearsals during the evenings, often for weeks on end. But they keep rehearsing, in spite of much-needed sleep and hunger. They keep rehearsing because virtually all of them are amateurs, self-taught with one thing that keeps them practicing: the sheer joy of their music.
There are memorable shots of individual musicians practicing wherever they can: at the sides of busy streets, in ramshackle buildings, amidst piles of trash and beat-up automobiles and passers-by who look at them curiously, wondering what they are observing. There’s another thread that runs through the film, relating the search of a single mother, Nathalie Bhati, a flautist, and her search for a flat for her and her three- or four-year-old son. He follows her everywhere she goes, which means that during rehearsals he’s sitting quietly on the ground next to her. She’s a beautiful woman, wearing a dress with a brilliant floral design in purple and when she’s finally shown a squalid two-room flat that she can rent for $40 a month, she makes one of the few critical remarks about Congo itself, stating that Congolese ought not to have to live under such conditions.
A young man who plays a violin in the orchestra describes his initial encounter with the instrument. He wasn’t even certain what he was holding. He explains, “It was such joy to touch the instrument. I broke strings. I couldn’t get music out of it.” Yet he becomes transformed by the instrument, later remarking, “It takes me far away. I’m in a different world.” Then he adds, “I dream of doing great things with my music.” That seems to be true of all of the musicians and an equally large number men and women who are part of the chorus, for the Kinshasa Symphony does not shy away from difficult works. Most of the scenes showing rehearsals record moments of preparation for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, though preparations are also being made for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. That means that the vocalists also needed to learn German.
The movie builds during two hours, focusing on the private lives of half a dozen members of the symphony and its director, their daily frustrations and endeavors to survive in a very difficult economy while slowly building towards an outdoors concert on space typically used for soccer games. It’s a dirt field, surrounded by shops and drinking establishments. The conductor is concerned that the music from the bars may make it difficult for the audience to hear the orchestra, but the day of the concert finally arrives, with the musicians and members of the choir arriving in the fancy clothing they wear for their concerts and have made themselves. There’s a brief rain, which quickly stops. We overhear Natalie say, “I want my son to be a musician like me.”
Then the live concert, in front of an audience of several thousand people. Not surprisingly, these are musicians who smile, even as they play. Their faces show nothing but sheer delight, and the crowd, afterwards, literally goes wild. If you have ever played a musical instrument or sung in a choir, you will be in tears at the pure joy of witnessing such an unlikely event in such a challenging environment. Earlier, one of the musicians said that L’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste is the only all black orchestra in the world. That’s doubtful, but watching this dazzling and inspiring movie, you begin to think that this is the only orchestra anywhere that has risen from such overwhelming obstacles.
The photography is gorgeous—the entire movie is visually stunning. At the conclusion of Kinshasa Symphony, you feel as if you’ve just unearthed a precious jewel, buried in all the dreck of life. I had to ask myself how I could possibly complain about the little inconveniences of life.
A film by Chris Wischmann and Martin Baer
Berlin: Sounding Images, 95 minutes
NOTE: Sadly, the Kinshasa Symphony is not yet available in the United States. The film has won numerous awards at international film festivals, but no official American release has yet been scheduled.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.