In September of this year it will be twenty years since the death of military dictator and President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph-Desiré Mobutu. But who was this man, the man who wanted to be known as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga and who for more than thirty years shaped the history of a country he named Zaïre?
On June 29th 2017, the eve of the 57th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Independence, Belgian film director Thierry Michel was present at Bozar Centre for Fine Arts to introduce the screening of his 1999 film, Mobutu Roi du Zaïre. The event was organized by Bozar, Cinematek, Flagey and the Wallonie-Brussels Federation in the frame of the celebrations commemorating 50 years of Francophone Belgian Cinema. Fifty films will be screened in different locations, all of them milestones in the history of Belgian Cinema.
At 62, Thierry Michel has made more than twenty films exploring different geographies. Iran, Somalia, Brazil, Morocco, all become places of discovery and amazement under the attentive eye of his camera. But a place he has come back to, over and over again, is Congo.
“I was expelled from Congo,” he told the audience. “And many times I’ve been shooting a movie in the country without a permit. That I can say freely now but let me tell you, it was not easy then.”
Silvered-hair and with a soft, whisper-like voice, Mr. Michel talked about his fascination with the DRC, the changes he has seen since he became acquainted with the country, nearly all of them for the worst.
“It’s very sad,” he said. “These days when you ask people in Congo, How are you, they reply, Mieux que demain. Better than tomorrow. To me it shows the annihilation of any form of hope. That’s what I find troubling, and sad.”
In a little bit over two hours, Mobutu Roi du Zaïre, shows the life of the politician, the husband and father, the womanizer and tyrant who wanted to be in power forever. In the beginning of the film we see a smiling young man, thin like a wire, coming to the Brussels World Fair in 1958 as a reporter, his voice almost wavering when interviewed by the Belgian press. Then comes June 30th 1960 and the independence from Belgium, his almost casual appointment as Secretary of State by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba who, without knowing, would be thereby offering his own head in a platter.
We see Mobutu grabbing the power by force, hanging former allies in a football field, their limp bodies used as an example for all of those wanting to question the authority of Marechal Mobutu. Democracy is something that exists in the West, we hear him say. In Zaïre things are different. His dreams of supreme power came true, supported by the United States and other western countries who saw him as an ally against communism. Mobutu shaking hands with Charles de Gaulle, waving at the crowds in London side by side with Queen Elizabeth, sharing the table with Richard Nixon.
The film also shows his unsatiable, almost animal desire for women. Mobutu married Bobi-Ladawa and took his twin sister, Kosia, as a mistress; both of them seemed willing to share the attention of the man who nonetheless kept other mistresses aside. Members of his cabinet recount how he often tried to seduce their wives; a manoeuvre to crack their confidence, damage their family life and make them weak. Opulence was a trait Mobutu was not ashamed of. In his mansion, carved in the hills of Cap Martin in southern France, Mobutu threw lavish parties for the elites he wanted to be associated with. At the White House, standing next to his long-time friend George H. Bush, Mobutu’s reign seemed to be blessed with the gift of eternity.
Forever the astute leopard, his mottled bonnet appearing in almost every scene, Mobutu never thought his reign would come to an end the way it did. After years of corruption and embezzlement, the country collapsed and the rebel leader Joseph Kabila forced him into exile.
“When we started this project Mobutu was still alive,” said one of the film producers. “We hesitated whether we should interview him or not. In the end we decided it was better to keep a distance.”
Mobutu died in Morocco in September of 1997, at the age of 66, away from the country he claimed to have loved and fought for. Away from the country that hasn’t been able to heal from the marks of dictatorship.