Annette, could you talk a bit about how you came to filmmaking?
I think it was meant to be. When I first received Rufin Mbou’s email correspondence about the call for projects for the Talents of Congo, I did not respond immediately because I was already involved in a journalism workshop with the Syfia International agency. But thanks to Rufin’s encouragement, I embarked on this adventure drawing from an initial work that I had presented to AfricaDoc in 2008. So I wrote to François Fronty, the cameraman of the project, and since he was located in France, we started to work together via the Internet. I admit that at the beginning I struggled to follow. François reminded me whenever I was too deep into the skin of a journalist that I had to get rid of this hat in order to wear that of the director. A difficult stage, but I think that having worn both these hats enabled me to create two productions of which, though with some technical imperfections, I am rather proud.
In your film, One does not forget one forgives, you begin by reading out loud to Sylvie Diclo Pomos, and of course, to the viewers, your intentions for making the film: to recall the Case of the Beach Disappearances in order to remember, because too often there is a tendency to forget. Sylvie Diclo Pomo’s play “Janus’s Madness” is the point of departure of the story and it is through her work and experiences that the film unfolds. At the end, the film plays a cathartic role for you. Why did you choose to focus on the Case of the Beach Disappearances and to tell the story in this way?
Initially it was to be a portrait of Sylvie the artist, and then the film changed dramatically. It was not intentional. At a point during the shooting I began to ask myself questions and I found the answer at the end of the film. I had not mourned my sister’s death. The Case of the Beach Disappearances is a tragedy that touched a lot of Congolese. Many have not yet mourned and even continue to hope for the return of their family members, others are completely devastated. But the most depressing of all is that there was a trial, and all of the accused were acquitted. Even now I cannot really say why I cried at that moment in the film. There were emotions that cannot be controlled. I thought I had forgotten, but no, there, all the past that I had buried away somewhere in my mind resurfaced. At first I did not want to put this part of my life in the documentary, it is a private part of life. But this moment expresses the real question of forgetting. Can one really forget or does one pretend to forget, thus the title, One does not forget one forgives. In this sense I fully agree with Sylvie, that it is necessary to talk, to question, in order not to make the same mistakes. One has the impression to have mourned but there are certain ghosts that are difficult to eliminate. The only therapy that remains is dialogue, sharing those fears, those problems. I think that it is a first step of a long therapy, and I am on the right path to healing. My narrative at the start of each sequence is for me, a travel diary, in order to seize those intense moments and share them with everyone.
What is the history of the Case of the Beach Disappearances and its impact on Congolese society?
In 1999, in an effort towards peace after the civil war, president Denis Sassou Nguesso announced a national reconciliation, signing accords with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the UNHCR [The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] for the return of refugees that had fled the civil war to take refuge in Kinshasa. Under the supervision of the UNHCR, the first return of families (adults, women and children) took place via the “Beach crossing” (the river ferry between Brazzaville and Kinshasa), which involved around 1,500 people. According to sources, the moment of their return to Brazzaville these people were arrested and dispatched by convoy to camps or to the presidential quarters. From that moment all traces of them have been lost. Some rumours tell of people being piled up alive in containers that were then sealed and dumped into the river. The number of those who disappeared has been estimated at more than 300 people. After the tragedy, there was a trial that did not establish any facts and to the disappointment of the families, the presumed guilty were acquitted, while other families received compensation. At the present the families are still unaware of what really happened during the crossing and continue to wait for justice: God’s.
For Sylvie Diclo Pomos, every Congolese is family, and thus the importance of writing the play. In the film one witnesses the strength of Sylvie Diclo Pomos, who is at the same time very caring. Who is this woman that you portray in your film?
Saying very little at first contact, Sylvie bursts out on stage. Actress, author, director, she is one of the rare female artists in the Congo who dares denounce the ills that plague Congolese society, meeting the existing authorities head-on and laying open on the public square, taboo subjects such as the Case of the Beach Disappearances, which is the focus of “Janus’s Madness”, or challenging journalists in the “The Boss’s Griots”. In this piece, her alert and candid pen is a weapon. Sylvie lights up the stage, careful not to lock herself in simplistic roles. A free woman, thoughtful mother, brilliant actor, and politically committed writer, here is the image that I have of this artist who I admire immensely. To note, shortly she will be in France, in Avignon the 19 to 25 July and in Limoges the 27 September to 6 October.
The title of the film, in fact, is Sylvie Diclo Pomos’ response to you when in an unexpected moment at the end of the film you express the pain of remembering. This film allowed you to “liberate myself from my ghosts.” How have the Congolese public responded to the film? Has it been catharthic for them as well?
There have been two screenings in Brazzaville at the French Institute but it has never been broadcast on television as have the other documentaries produced in the Talents of Congo series. Yes, I think that the film has allowed several people to be able to mourn the deaths of their loved ones. Everyone who has seen it has been affected by it. I really do think that speaking liberates and this film has loosened the tongue, especially during organised discussions after the screenings.
Interview with Annette Kouamba Matondo and translation from French to English by Beti Ellerson, June 2012.