Poster of Film: Whatever Happened to Make Poverty History?
Shana Mongwanga, London-based filmmaker, actor, writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo works at the intersection of social change and art.
Shana, you work between languages and countries, please give a bit of your background.
First of all, thank you very much Beti for organising this interview and for the African Women in Cinema Study and Research Centre and Blog. Any African woman’s work in cinema is only relevant if it can be shared and people connect to it, and your work allows that, so I am very grateful.
I do work between languages and countries indeed. I am a film director, an actor and a writer. I find myself thinking in different languages for different activities I am doing. When I direct I tend to think and write in English because I trained and work in that language. My most current actor’s work is also in English, although I have some good contacts in France, and hopefully some good projects in the pipeline.
But when I write my main thought process is still in French for some reason. Sometimes I might think about a film idea, script or a situation in English but to accurately transcribe it, I have to lay it down in French and then ensure I can get the gist of it in English. For everything else it’s in Lingala and Swahili. That’s just how it works out.
All those different languages are due to my journey so far. I was born in Bukavu, in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Swahili and Lingala are predominant. I grew up in that region and at the age of seven my parents moved to a small village in Belgium. As soon as I finished my studies at the Catholic University of Louvain I left Belgium, literally a month or so after. I have been living in London ever since. My work is also very much influenced by that journey—from Africa to Europe, from African to European languages—francophone and English.
Your interests are very eclectic, at the same time you studied law and political science, you are equally focused in the arts as you work at the intersection of social change and theatre and film. Some reflections on your journey?
I guess it reflects my passion for life and interest for human beings and humanity in general. Whether it’s a campaign, a project management job for an NGO, a film, a play, writing, directing, acting or advocating for human rights; for me it’s all about the same thing: connecting to our common humanity, trying to better ourselves and improving people’s lives.
I connect with some topics which I feel are important and I want to extend and share my knowledge about them. Hopefully others connect to it as well through my work.
Growing up I wanted to be an actress and I often acted in plays at school. My parents made me realise that life as an actor, specially female, Belgian-Congolese is far from ideal so I chose to focus on Law and Political Science studies instead of going to drama or film school. But I was always involved in theatre at university and I would perform in plays every year with Theatre Universitaire de Louvain (TUL). I was always cast in non-speaking or servant roles and I hated it. So I decided to create my own theatre company—direct, write, produce and act in my own work. And that’s how I started out really, out of necessity. But I also noticed how the university campus was very much segregated. The wealthy, the middle class, the international students, the Congolese- Belgian, the European-Belgium no one really mixed. Except on very rare occasions. So I decided to name my own Theatre Company …”Ebony and Ivory”...cheesy I know but it set the tone. And I chose plays that would bring different groups together for these productions. So it was as much for the art and content as having a social impact on campus. I wanted the audience, the cast and the narration to meet and mix up. All this whilst I was preparing my thesis, “Reforms of the UN Security Council”.
When I moved to London I started to work for an international NGO with refugees and asylum seekers in and out of detention centres. I continued the same pattern of making plays about social change whilst working full time. I made a point of training and learning the craft as much as I could. Therefore I did a postgraduate degree in drama school, at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA). I also took filmmaking courses with the Raindance and Documentary Filmmakers group and did some internships with production companies such as Michael Winterbottom’s Revolution Films.
My work in film came out of the realisation that to see more truthful and positive images of African women, we need to have more women from that background telling their stories and making their voices heard. We do exist and we have a voice!
I am worried that very much like in 16th century paintings, in films, Blacks and African women are too often portrayed as victims, weak, un-resourceful beings. Well, if anything, all the African women I know are strong, resilient people. I want to ensure I tell their stories in my films.
You founded AfricaLives! Productions in 2005, what is its missions, its objective and projects?
Africalives! Productions is a statement in itself. I wanted a name that had a purpose. I wanted it to mean what it says, that Africa Lives! It is it not a dying un-resourceful continent as it is often portrayed in the media and how some people perceive it. Those stereotypes made their way in the global consciousness via films as well. I am the product of an African background. I am an African-European woman making films. Therefore I wanted a name that also reflects who I am.
Our mission is to work with charities, organisations, companies or individuals to promote positive social change using films, theatre, and art. I wanted to offer the support of films for fundraising and other purposes at a reasonable cost and also make a real film about the people benefiting from the charity services and the people working in these charities. Not just a corporate film, but a real short film.
It is a success because some of the first films we did, for example for the Jesuit Refugee Service is a source of inspiration and is still being viewed. Sadly it is still relevant, because the mistreatment of asylum seekers and children held in detention centres across Europe, who are often very traumatised if and when they are released, still exists.
We also work in theatre. I wrote, acted and produced “Kenzo” a play inspired by and dedicated to the memory of Kodjo Yenga and Tyno Kavuala. It is the story of two teenagers who were respectively stabbed and shot dead in London. They were from the Congolese community and died a week apart. It was a very sad time for the community. But it is also sadly, reflective of teenage knife crimes and killings in London.
These young men were distant relatives and some of my family members arrived in London to attend their funerals or comfort the family of the two boys. I remember my sister asking, “What is happening in London, they are killing the kids”. As a Londoner, I am worried about the knife crimes issue amongst the youth. It is not something tourists might be aware of, but it is very real for young boys who are at the forefront of that war, especially black boys. Therefore when I had the opportunity to be part of a writing workshop at the London Royal Court Theatre, I wanted to use that opportunity to explore that topic and somehow deal with these feelings I had. It is very worrying to know that, according to statistics and facts, you live in a place where your child is very likely be targeted by gangs and stabbing. Well, I didn’t come all this way to move out. So I had to do something about it, and we all can do something about it.
The question I ask ultimately is what are we doing to ensure that the streets are safe for ALL the kids? Why did a 13-year-old boy feel that he had to carry a knife to protect himself in the capital of the 4th wealthiest country of the world? Basically I tried to develop projects from a certain perspective, which are not being dealt with in mainstream media or theatre.
The film Congo - A Common Cause - from London to Bukavu has received quite a bit of attention internationally. Including a presence at Cannes. Where did the idea come from to make the film? What was your process, the reception of the film?
I make a point of having a film at the Cannes Film Festival every year. I started in 2006 when I collaborated and starred in What’s it all About, a short film about the Muslim veil by award winning director Lovejit K. Dhaliwal. So I am really pleased this year that this short film had some attention internationally.
I agreed to do Congo – A Common Cause- From London to Bukavu because I know and admire the work of the organisation Common Cause UK. It is a fantastic platform of Congolese women based in the UK and Congo DRC. They work directly with the Women in Congo, and because I was born in Bukavu in East Congo where the march took place, I really wanted to use that opportunity to contribute to highlight issues in the region and to convey their work truthfully.
I was approached by a member of Common Cause UK, who saw my last film, Whatever Happened to Make Poverty History? and was asked if I could accompany them in Bukavu to document their travel at the World March of Women in October 2010. The plan didn’t work out due to lack of funding but the Common Cause UK along with Million Women Rise filmed some events with their home cameras. When they came back I saw the footage and felt it was such a pity to be unable to document these events from a Congolese women’s perspective. Everyone speaks on behalf of Congolese Women, but when do we really hear their voices?
Funding is one of the main challenges we face as filmmakers, but even more so as African women filmmakers. This means that it is always other people who are documenting and telling our stories. How truthful is it? We need to put efforts in financing and producing our films.
But I was really determined to tell the story of that journey, even if the footage was shaky or overexposed, with people speaking in English, French, Lingala, Swahili in the same sequences. The content was strong enough to tell a story in a film format in my opinion. So I scheduled additional filming in London with Common Cause UK and I filmed them at the demonstration of the 100the Anniversary of International Women’s Day, which went from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square.
I chose to structure the film as a diary of their journey as it happened from the moment they arrived in Kinshasa, their travel to Bukavu and Goma by boat, on their way to the demonstrations and the visit to Mwenga—a very important place where forty Congolese women were buried alive in 1999 because they resisted the occupation of their land. Mwenga is almost never in the media. The work and resistance of Congolese women are scarcely mentioned in the media.
The film shows the memorial that was inaugurated to honour their bravery and is dedicated to these women who inspired me. So much for the victimhood of Congolese women! I would really like the media to focus more on the courage, resistance, resilience and extraordinary work of the women in the region rather than parading celebrities in sunglasses carrying presumed African orphans to promote their own image.
From the London demonstration you can see how British-Congolese women are really united in that fight. They came from Bradford, Manchester in order to demonstrate and show solidarity with women in East Congo. They are not being passive and waiting for international aid, which as one local Congolese male interlocutor suggests, “aid which does not even reach the rape victims.”
I chose the title Congo, A Common Cause, from London to Bukavu because the fight Congolese women are experiencing is a common battle for all women—a fight for justice and their right to live. In situations of wars and conflict, women are always the first victims. Rape is used as a weapon to destroy communities. It happened in the First and Second World Wars, it happened in ex-Yugoslavia, it is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Similarly, Congolese men didn’t just wake up and start raping women in Congo, which is now known as the capital of sexual violence.
The genesis of this was a regional war, greed and illegal exploitation of natural resources in the region, which is fuelling the war and the women are paying the price. Sadly many media, and even international charities scarcely mention the root cause of the conflict and only focus on never ending aid programs, which do not achieve long-term solutions. We have to listen to the voices of Congolese women in that region to understand and stop the widespread violence.
I also wanted the film to be seen by various people at once and not on separate versions, with only French or English subtitles. Although the double subtitling might appear busy to the eye, it allows people to experience the film at the same time and hear what the women are saying in Lingala and Swahili and also to hear the true meaning of their chants when they march in unison.
So far many people have posted the preview on their web pages and shared the link, it was also screened at the House of Commons during a launch report and part of the preparation visit for the All Party Parliamentarian Group visit in Congo. BBC World television broadcast a clip during the GMTV interview as well.
I hope many people will come to see the full version of the film when we have a screening in a few weeks. It is short and technically imperfect due to limited resources but it is powerful and to the point.
Thank you Beti!
Interview by Beti Ellerson, August 2011