Waking Up Conscience

Connection, Community and Subtlety in Dieudonné Hamadi’s Maman Colonelle (2017)
Madame Colonelle

The film Maman Colonelle (DR Congo, 2017) begins with the eponymous Colonel Honorine Munyole as she prepares for another day of work. A tall husky lady bearing white-rimmed glasses, gentle facial features and a firm gaze we see her as she patches herself up in front of a mirror and fills up her jeep with fuel at the local gas station. In the rather brief but humorous scene we begin to learn about her person, her directness and sober-mindedness seeping through from her patient but firm interaction with the station attendant, who sloppily drops the fuel dispenser and she verbally encourages him, waiting for him patiently to attend to the car. Afterwards she sets off.

Colonel Honorine heads the Unit of the Police Force in the Democratic Republic of Congo responsible for protecting minors and battling sexual violence targeted at the most vulnerable group in her country, women and children. One of the most fascinating aspects about Colonel Honorine’s work lies with her specific exercise of authority: her authority does not come from a ‘dead letter’, or from a politicized sense of hierarchical superiority, usually distanced from the subjects associated with that authority (colonels are represented on film as somewhat unapproachable, usually associating with high-profile military personnel or amidst warfare). Rather, her authority comes from direct engagement with human welfare on the local level. Thus, her authority carries with it a sense of immediacy and approachability, as in the first case she is the one personally carrying out controls and checks in the neighbourhoods, and in the second she is working with the women and children, speaking with them and hearing their testimonies in a very warm motherly fashion and at the same time working resolutely to capture the culprits.

Aesthetically the film is composed of many crowd scenes outdoors, in the neighbourhoods themselves, coupled with questionings and procedurals indoors, either in the houses of the people she is visiting or else in the police quarters. The camera dynamic displays most elegant shifts, from warm close-ups of children and mothers attentively listening to long shots engulfed within the crowd, with the Colonel being visible in the back of the image as she gives an informative lesson. She stresses the importance of people ‘speaking out’ when assaulted or when they see someone else assaulted. Silence is either toleration or corroboration of the crime, or a way of further victimizing the victim. As she talks there is no music. There are no breaks from the diegesis. The aesthetics create a sense of connection and community through attentiveness of delivery, as the sober-mindedness of the Colonel and her verbal task of establishing a personal relationship with the people she aims to help is mirrored through the organic connection created with the camera recording the event, bridging closeness and separation, the individual and the crowd.

The ability to establish meaningful connections within a real-time documentary aesthetic concerned with civil service and community relations proves a rare gift and something that appears to be a regular working task for the film’s director Dieudonné Hamadi. Hamadi is a Congolese filmmaker who, after studying medicine, turned to training in documentary cinema, completing film school in Paris and working on a series of productions since the late 2000s. His previous films were equally concerned with internal living conditions and social relations in his native DR Congo, with his last film National Diploma (2014) dealing with children and teachers in the schooling system; and his part in the omnibus Congo in Four Acts (2010) depicting life in maternity wards (where women who cannot pay fees are not allowed to leave), and the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Hamadi’s Maman Colonelle is no less engaged or engaging: it shows the severity of problems facing the people who live in slums and are even exposed to sexual violence, and the immediacy with which these problems need to be dealt. It is no ‘social problem pamphlet’ film, a category of the popular cultural imaginary that may be the result of desensitizing people to images of war as new ‘hotspots’ of conflict are discovered by the world powers. Rather, it is a more careful and rigorous negotiation of an internal and local problem of a country and its people, showing the real-life implications of crime, strife and poverty on the most vulnerable groups. The film may do well to ‘wake up’ the viewer’s conscience, to make them see more attentively how they relate to people in everyday life, so the dictum of the journalist in Hotel Rwanda (dir. Terry George, 2004) does not come true, ‘that after seeing all this blood and injustice people will switch the channel and go on eating their dinners.’

The openness of the aesthetics and the honesty of the subject representation in any case constitute a film of remarkable subtlety. In addition to the impressions above subtle references come out in the film, perhaps unintentionally, that invert the hierarchy present in many war films. For instance, a scene of the police force training shows the Colonel firmly running first, leading her force, with a group of policemen lagging behind. The traditional austerity of military training and the imbalance of camaraderie, most explicitly depicted through the cold exchanges and symmetrically unrelenting tracking shots of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), is here counteracted by untraditional steadfastness and the balance of camaraderie, as evoked by the warm exchanges between the police crew and the asymmetrical perpendicular tracking shots that offer an alternative dynamic between the head of the force and the team. Here, in a rare instance, we see what it is like for a federal force to have a (real life bear in mind) resolute mother figure as the leader of that force.

The film acts as a microcosm of life, a frame in (to) the Democratic Republic of Congo that viewers in Europe rarely have the chance to see. The film finally serves as a good platform from which the door can be opened for Hamadi to continue to treat subjects of collective interest with internal care and humility. Documentary cinema may have a new Wiseman.