Monday, 27 September 2010

LFF 2010 Review : Benda Bilili!

This beautiful French documentary charts the rise of Congolese handicapped street band Staff Benda Bilili, as they prepare to record their first album in Kinshasha. Followed by filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye over five years, their songs about a life spent sleeping on cardboard sheets, often afflicted by debilitating polio are rousing and optimistic, at complete odds with the struggle for survival that surrounds them.
Rehearsing in the relative quiet of Kinshasha Zoo, the band’s core members encourage young street kids to find a sense of purpose through music, and when the filmmakers come across 12 year old Roger, something of a musical prodigy on his self-made instrument the ‘monochord’ (a tin can and bicycle part with a single wire), the shy boy travels for miles to realise the shared dream of travelling to Europe with the group.
-          “What Is this Europe anyway?”
-          “I don’t know, but it’s a place everyone wants to get to.”
This dream of Europe, more of a concept than any concrete place to them, is perhaps the only hope they can cling to outside the less tangible promises of Christianity, and when their handicapped shelter burns down becomes of even greater importance. The filmmakers provide the means for them to record their album, and after a stuttering start, the dream of Europe comes to fruition.
It’s their commitment to hard work and practise that takes them on the road, and seeing them perform barnstorming sets at European festivals had me grinning from ear to ear. It helps that their music is so good too, mixing funk with traditional African sounds, they’re all natural showmen and watching the 12 year old Roger grow from a shy, quiet child into an upstaging musical showman is a inspirational highlight.
It’s a wonderfully uplifting and crowd-pleasing documentary, full of great music and triumph over real hardship and adversity. From the community-led games of handicapped football and breakdancing to their beaming faces as they hear their track played back in the studio and receive their first unmixed CD, there’s a joie de vivre to the characters featured that’s impossibly winning, especially given their circumstances, and I’m sorry I was unaware they were performing in the UK over the summer. The album is called Tres Tres Fort, and I hope this film does for them what Wim Wenders’ film did for the Buena Vista Social Club.
Benda Bilili! - 2010 - France - 86 mins - Dir : Renaud Barret, Florent de la Tullaye
Benda Bilili! is screening as part of the Film On The Square strand at the London Film Festival on Thursday 21st & Friday 22nd October. Tickets available at

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