” I hope that “Empire of Silence” will help to fight against oblivion
On the occasion of the presentation in Congo of his latest feature film, “Empire of Silence”, the Belgian director Thierry Michel met with our editorial staff. An exclusive interview.
In what context are you in the Congo?
This is the third time I’m touring with the film “Empire of silence” with debates in different regions. We started in Kinshasa at the end of November 2021 with large screenings at the Palais du Peuple. This was the world premiere before the film was even released in Belgium and France, and before I toured Africa, Belgium, France and the United States with Dr. Mukwege.
And the first trips to the Congo?
Last September, I toured the East, in Bukavu, Goma, and Kisangani. At each of my stops, screenings were organized in universities, French institutes, parishes, youth centers, bar associations and other places of civil society. With nearly 40 screenings, thousands and thousands of spectators have attended the film with 90% of them being young people.
I have the partial support of Wallonia Brussels, but I self-finance a large part of these trips that I make on a voluntary basis for the Congolese public and all the screenings are free and free of copyright. This is my contribution to the Congolese cause.
During this 3rd stay of diffusion of the film in Kinshasa, we projected the film in the cathedral, which was symbolically important. Then in Kananga where we had a screening at the bar, in the universities, in the religious congregations. I continued in Kolwezi in the room of the Provincial Assembly and I continued in Lubumbashi with an exceptional attendance at the University and the Archdiocese. Before ending the tour in Kinshasa at the Espace Bilembo in the presence of the French and American ambassadors. Finally, at the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles, a screening was organized for the students in journalism and communication of IFASIC.
What was the reaction of the Congolese public?
The return is a discovery. I understood that the Congolese do not know the history of their country. Even me, who has been making films about the Congo for 32 years, discovered some dark pages of Congolese history: the Mbandaka massacre or the Six Days War in Kisangani. As I go back 25 years: the First War, the Second War, the war of Kisangani, the various massacres Mbandaka, Tingi Tingi. Then in Katanga, I deal with an episode, that of Gédéon Kyungu, and I end with the Kasai crisis. Everywhere, my goal was to find witnesses, to collect testimonies from people who had never spoken to the media. They had a lot of courage not only to explain what had happened, but also to denounce those whom they consider to be the criminals responsible for these massacres. Of course, legally they are presumed, but for the people who saw them on the ground, they are not really “presumed” anymore. It took a lot of bravery to quote Gédéon and Congolese politicians still in power. So, the first objective of this film is to make people discover history, to understand it and to share it. It is a historical role, information and obviously awareness, these are issues that affect education and justice.
What about impunity?
Yes, the central theme that emerges from all these films is the persistent impunity. Why does the Congolese tragedy continue after 25 years, and why has the country fallen back into a new war in the East? This is reminiscent of the first war in 1996, and the second war in 1998. Because there is impunity. I explained this in the film. There is no reason for it to stop.
I hope that “The Empire of Silence” will allow us to fight against oblivion, that is the moral conclusion of the film. To make people discover these testimonies, to discover these numerous archives which illustrate in an extremely visual and striking way what happened. For example, I realize that almost nobody knew about the sequence of the death train in Kisangani in 1997.
Where did these documents come from?
Simply from Reuters. In the cinema, images pass quickly. If all the scenes of what happened in Ukraine are well assimilated in our memories, the images of the Congo, if they were ever broadcast, do not have such a strong impact that the collective Western or Congolese imagination has integrated them.
But we break the silence, that’s the purpose of the film. It is true that the Western media do not treat the war in Ukraine and the war in Eastern Congo in the same way. And that the Congolese media are so self-centered that they almost never talk about other African or world tragedies like Tigray, Yemen, etc. The Congolese are bogged down in their own tragedy and this prevents them from showing concern and solidarity with other peoples, which is a real shame. It is true that the international community is not taking the same decisions to investigate and sanction the perpetrators of the crimes currently being committed in the East as the ICC has done for Putin. This is unfortunately a double standard under two different registers.
But the Congolese authorities are not conducting more investigations and punishing more of the “alleged” perpetrators of crimes committed in this country for more than 25 years. Let’s first look in our own backyard before accusing others of what we don’t do!
Let us return to the reactions of the spectators.
A reflection is repeated: “Thank you for having allowed us to understand the sequence of these events that we know in isolation, but which are there reconstituted in a whole”.
But above all, great emotions that make the spectators cry to see what their country has become. Shock and revolt, especially in the East saying, “this is unacceptable, never again.” “We will take charge and change things. We don’t want any more leaders who practice predation, corruption, violence and power grabbing at the expense of the development of the country and its people.”
People always ask me what can we do? At the medical school, I explained that tomorrow we need to create a forensic medicine that will allow us to identify the victims. DNA banks exist in other African countries, but not in Congo. You need this legal tool. If you are a criminologist, work on these unpunished crimes, you have an incredible amount of material! You are a lawyer, go to the courts, national and international justice, mixed courts! In all possible and imaginable fields, everyone can do something at his or her level.
People often refer to Dr. Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize winner and pride of the Congo. He is the example to follow, as well as a few others, too rare by generation. But, please, be all Doctors Mukwege! Take risks! I remind you of the words of John Paul II, when he became pope while there was still a totalitarian communist regime in Poland, and in all the countries of the East. He immediately said: “Do not be afraid”. And the Poles were not afraid, and they brought down the system. Do not accept submission, humiliation, violation and do not be in voluntary servitude!
You have been a privileged witness of the recent history of the Congo. How do you see things in the future?
At a certain point, I understood that political appointments in Congo are always missed and that the situation has deteriorated. We hoped for the fall of Mobutu, and I stood by the people with the hope of a humanistic, open and pluralist democratic society. But the result was an extremely criminal war that gave birth to a second war after the departure of the Rwandans and that Balkanized the country. We fell back, we fell back and then there was a multiplication of armed groups, the first elections, the veracity of which was rejected by many. With those of 2011, there were many hopes again disappointed, because the fraud was spectacular. Finally, the 2018 election was a painful one and its result is highly contested.
Each time, one has the impression that the Congo is wallowing in its old demons to never get out of the rut of its infernal cycles dictated by the monopolization of power and wealth. But today’s youth are much better educated. I see it in all the debates, they are not fooled. I also realize that Dr. Mukwege’s ethical and moral discourse on spiritual and individual values has an impact on society. We must kill the snake and its venom. I think that this generation is intellectually capable. They have the digital tool, they know what is going on elsewhere, they can no longer be made to believe in the truth. With this energy, I am hopeful. And then I discovered that people were no longer afraid, they not only cited what they had experienced, but beyond resilience, they dared to denounce those responsible for these crimes, many of whom are now at the top of the military or political power. But within the population things are changing, especially with the repeated call of Dr. Denis Mukwege, the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize winner, to end impunity and return to the moral and spiritual values of Congolese society.
And among others, the surviving Kasai women are determined not to be intimidated anymore. From resilient, they are today resistant. So, this strength is there, with these people who are models.
I feel that today the youth do not let themselves be fooled.
Why does the Congolese tragedy continue after 25 years? Because of impunity! There is no reason for it to stop, that is the central theme of the film.
The goal of the film EMPIRE DU SILENCE is to open eyes and consciences, and to break the silence.
By Olivier Delafoy
Photos odelafoy for @photo.AfricaInside