PODCAST — Episode 11, recorded
Nelson Makengo in conversation with BFMAF programmer Myriam Mouflih translated by Rosa Spaliviero about the film ‘Up at Night’.→
Nelson Makengo (1990, Kinshasa, DR Congo) is a photographer, filmmaker and producer. He is a graduate from The Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa and La Fémis in Paris. He has directed six short films which have been screened at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival (France) and de Saint-Louis Documentary Film Festival (Senegal), among others. He was one of the 10 Congolese artists selected to participate in the 2017 Atelier Picha (Lubumbashi). In 2018, Makengo presented his film E’ville at the Lubumbashi Biennal and was artist-in-residence at Wiels Contemporary art centre (Belgium).
Myriam Mouflih is a film programmer and sometimes writer from Glasgow, UK. Her research has focused predominantly on Artists Moving Image from the African continent and the diaspora. Since 2017, Myriam has programmed for Africa in Motion Film Festival and served on the committee of Transmission Gallery from 2018-2020. She is also a member of the LUX Scotland Advisory group and was on the jury for the Margaret Tait Award 2020/21.
Rosa Spaliviero lives and works mainly between Brussels and Lubumbashi. She has a university degree in film analysis and theory and a master in cultural management (ULB, 2000-2005), and a complementary degree in film production (IAD, 2010-2011). She is a film producer and created Twenty Nine Studio & Production in 2017 with Sammy Baloji. Spaliviero joined us to translate the conversation.
Hi. Welcome to the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. My name’s Myriam, and I’m on the programming team for the festival. Today I’m speaking with Nelson Makengo, the director of Up at Night, which is screening in the Berwick New Cinema Competition. Nelson Makengo is a filmmaker, photographer, and producer based in Kinshasa.
So, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. We are screening your film, Up at Night, and I guess I was just interested in your approach and where the idea to make the film came from. I know it came from a photography project and then was developed into a film. I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
[Translated by Rosa Spaliviero] At the beginning, the idea was to reproduce a kind of emotional way to map the city at night, to have a kind of imaginary map of Kinshasa at night. That’s what was the main intention on the photograph. And then, when he started shooting, taking pictures and talking to the people, then he realised that it was important also to give voice to these people who are working at night in Kinshasa. And so, there is the link in between the idea, and then the film is really to make an interaction in between the city and the people at night.
Yeah, I was wondering if I could ask a technical question just about how to capture a city at night in such low light with just these LEDs, if there was much technical interruption on Nelson’s part, or if he was just capturing what was there.
At the beginning, it is really related also to the photographic approach of Nelson. So, in the beginning he was taking pictures of people illuminated by LED torches. And then, for the shooting, what he tries sometimes is to, if they are not illuminated by LED torches, then he gives them a LED torch to be illuminated. But then, he asked the people just to live their lives as they’re living, like normally, and to do whatever they want. And then, Nelson shoots. So for him, it’s not to be opposite. It’s not to analyse what they are doing in the action, but to let them free to say what they want to say. And so, Nelson is more testimony. Yes, the reality of a social life of what is happening around these people.
So, the film is also charged with the moment – because the shooting happened during the first democratic elections of Congo. Since 1960, so since independence…so this is also really important, the period…it’s a tense period. It’s not a normal period. It was in between December and January, 2019. And then, there was also all this news around the dam being built on the Congo river, on this project of the Grand Dam. It’s also related to that.
Yeah, I was wondering if Nelson could speak a little bit more about being the kind of conduit for those people’s voices and for their opinion. I guess I’m especially interested in the kind of stuff about the hydroelectric dam. I was wondering if maybe he could speak to that or speak about just generally what the feeling is towards that. I think we see some of it in the film, but I would kind of be interested to hear.
He knows that he’s dealing and he’s facing a dramatic situation. There is a kind of violence in what is happening in the film, in the spaces, and also in what you can hear, in the voices that you can hear, there is a violence. So, there is something dramatic, but for him, the wish is to transform this violence into something poetic, aesthetic. So, this is the development of his directing. And for this, he uses a camera, sound recorder, and some LEDs torches that he gives to the characters, and he hopes that with this simple tool, he can create a sort of magic situation. And about the great Dam, for him it’s not really important, the great Dam in itself, the project, but what is more important is to reflect on what it means to be enlightened and to give light. So, what does it mean symbolically, but emotionally, but also in reality.
I guess maybe my question, too, would be, what is it like as someone who has lived away from the DRC, lived in France, and then what was that relationship like going back to make that film as someone who has lived abroad and studied abroad. I wonder if it gives some distance or something.
So for him, it was really a big shock to be in Paris, to arrive in Paris, because he studied there for three months. Also, on the imaginary side, it was like, okay, I’m arriving in the La Ville de lumiere, the city of lights, you know, Paris. And then of course, he realised that he was living in darkness because even more so when he got back to Kinshasa, there was a transformation inside him. He changed, and he realised that he was living in the dark. But, while he was in Kinshasa, for him, it was normal to be in the dark. It’s only when he traveled back to Paris that he realised that this was not normal.
I think there’s also something interesting there about what people can get used to and what becomes normal and that one person’s way of life or one city’s way of life or way of living is always going to be different from another. Yeah, that’s kind of interesting to me: what this normal is in the scheme of darkness and light. I guess my other question is to go back to something technical and just to talk about the decision to present the film in three split screens. And, I guess maybe that comes from the photographic element of it, but I was wondering if Nelson could talk about that a little bit.
So, before doing the film, he visited the two dams that are today working about 10%, Inga 1 and Inga 2. So, the Grand Dam would be Inga 3, okay? And so, he visited this enormous place, and he went inside of the control centre. You can imagine big screens, machine to control all the operations, all the… And so, this was inspiring for the short film. And also, another aesthetic that was inspiring to do this three-screen video, was the screens that you can see at night in Kinshasa, in the city. The informal vendors, they also sell all TVs or screens from Europe. This was also inspiring for the editing of the video because you can see that some images are repeating themselves, some others are separate. Also, this device helps to have a distance with the images and the subject and allow the viewer to be distant from what he sees or she sees. So, it’s not an immersive film, but it’s more an observational film.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, and thank you so much for your film. It was such a pleasure to be able to screen it. Yeah, thank you.
Thank you so much. Thank you!