Who owns the story of the Congolese tragedy in the cinema?

An unusual legal battle on two continents begins between two documentarians, a Congolese and a Belgian, because of their respective films both dealing with the same subject: war crimes in the Congo over the past decades.

African director Gilbert Balufu Mbaye, signatory of Congo! The silence of forgotten crimes (2015), accuses European filmmaker Thierry Michel, author of The Empire of Silence (2021). The hearing of the case, also brought by the producer Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, brother of the director, is scheduled for May 10 before a court in Kinshasa. A similar complaint is courting Brussels.

Mr. Michel responds with a lawsuit for “defamation” and “slander” before the public prosecutor of his country. A similar process is being prepared before the Congolese courts.

The two works in dispute recount, with interviews and archival extracts, years of massacres and looting committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the beginning of the 1990s. The genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda triggered a regional crisis which caused thousands, if not millions, of new victims with impunity – those responsible having become in turn military and political leaders.

The Belgian documentary was screened in Montreal at the recent Vues d’Afrique International Film Festival. The event issued a statement “to support the director and his producer in this fight against censorship and for freedom of expression”. A support petition is circulating.

Attempt at censorship?

The Empire of Silence is announced as the last film by Thierry Michel, which closes at the same time a Congolese cycle that began thirty years ago by launching “a cry of anger against what has happened and what is still happening in this country “. The first took place in January in Brussels.

In interview at To have toMr. Michel strongly denounces accusations of plagiarism. It then transmits a comparative analysis carried out by the specialized firm Engelbert for the international society of authors SACD-SCAM. The conclusion seems flawless.

“Thierry Michel’s film does not contain any reproduction of any extract from Gilbert Balufu’s film”, says the document, which also recalls that a common theme “does not entail any right or any particular protection”. On the contrary, the analysis affirms that it was the Balufu brothers who used certain archival documents without authorization.

“Undeniably, there is something there that is being played out to try to ban the film, said Mr. Michel in an interview with the To have to. But what’s behind that? This is the great mystery. Given its subject, my film does not please everyone, far from it. »

The Belgian director was unable to present his documentary in Quebec for health reasons. He hopes to postpone the cause of May 10 in Kinshasa for the same reasons and still thinks of going to defend himself on the spot, even if he risks imprisonment for one to twelve months.

Accusations of plagiarism

The Belgian film was shown for the first time in October in Brussels, then three times in November in the Congolese capital. The plagiarism accusations came three days after Kinshasa’s last screening.

The Congolese producer writes to To have to that he unsuccessfully claimed a copy of Mr. Michel’s film after the November 2021 screenings in Congo “for comparison screening sessions”. Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda adds: “Our approach is directed against a film that we accuse of plagiarism and counterfeiting”.

The producer did not want to point to the elements allowing Mr. Michel to be accused of plagiarism; the legal complaint does not give any details on this specific subject either. However, the director has already declared that he noted “80 elements of comparison” in the two works.

Neocolonialism?

The complaint for defamation filed by Mr. Michel in Belgium relays several other statements of extreme severity by the Congolese director against his Belgian colleague. One of them affirms that the latter “oozes contempt for the Congolese (like all his films on the Congo)”.

Is the deep reason for the pursuit there, concentrated in a kind of supposed memory appropriation and cinematographic neocolonialism? Another quote from the Congolese director speaks of the “theft of the imagination”. All in all, is it the very approach of a Belgian and not Congolese film on “forgotten crimes” that explains the legal process?

“We have nothing to do with race or tribe, as you want to imply,” wrote Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda in writing. “There are counterfeiters and pirates in all races. No film subject is restricted to one race or one country. »

The two documentaries highlight the weakness of the interventions of international institutions and the complicity of companies exploiting Congolese minerals. The Dr Denis Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize winner for his help to raped women, is present in both productions.

“This procedure is therefore a strategy to ban the broadcast of a film that calls for an end to impunity in the Congo, joining the campaign of Dr.r Mukwege” on this issue, wrote to To have to Mr. Michel after the interview. It is obvious that this will be a highly political trial, for which civil society, the press and the media at national and international level will be mobilized. »

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