Once upon a time, Cuba’s historical revolutionary leader, Ernesto “Che” Guevera set forth on a passionate quest to avenge the crimes committed against Congo. It is a story of failure, but one of heroic determination, as it reflects the mission of a man with a commitment to serve the people’s liberation. We had the pleasure of interviewing award winning writer-director, Ben Crowe, who gave us the skinny on the work he and his remarkable team are undertaking to uniquely and creatively tell this story.
THE VOIX: Your team is embarking on an amazing project that will provide a rich lesson on African and Congolese history. Tell us a little bit more about you, your team and what you hope to achieve?
BEN CROWE: The team behind CHE IN CONGO has worked together on photobooks, as well as journalistic and NGO assignments in Congo and East Africa. Jan-Joseph Stok was a conflict photojournalist for many years and has covered a lot of countries on the continent. He’s very well known for his work on Congo especially on ‘blood minerals’. I’m a filmmaker. I work across different genres – fiction and documentary – and most of my work has a human rights edge. I’m able to take a more creative approach in my experimental films like my Palme D’Or nominated short film. Teun van der Heijden is a brilliant photobook maker, writer and visual curator; he’s going to be helping us to turn our work into an exhibition involving photobooks, online and travel gallery shows, a series of documentary films and much more. So it is a really strong multi-media collaboration that draws on all our professional experiences and creative skills. Together we hope to produce a stunning and unique body of work.
TV: Why the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and what sparked your interest in the project?
BC: DR Congo has huge potential for change and it comes from its people. But they’re held back by legacies of colonialism, a predatory state and geo-politics. I’ve had the privilege of training local Congolese human rights activists in video and photography skills. These individuals are leaders in their communities who peacefully demand respect for their rights. Amidst the poverty and death threats they receive, their response has been non-violent collective action. But what they demand amounts to a revolution – freedom from oppression and exploitation – from low pay in dangerous conditions and no access to medical care to government corruption, extortion and harassment, rape and sexual assault, illegal detention, torture as well as forced resettlements. Fifty years after Che Guevara’s secret mission to Congo in 1965 the injustices and abuses remain. We see CHE IN CONGO as a lens to explore the last fifty years, what is happening today and the future. Because we hope to fund it through Kickstarter, we can be creative and take an approach that is different from what is demanded by the media.
TV: Describe the unique connection between Che Guevara and the Congo.
BC: In the 1960s, DR Congo – newly independent and vital to the geo-politics of the African continent – was a focus for the Cold War. Both the Soviets and the United States wanted the country to be in their camp. Remember, Congo’s vast mineral wealth was – and still is – critical to global industry and at that time, Congo was also being mined for the uranium needed to make nuclear weapons. Che Guevara cut through all this power-politics: he wanted to support the liberation struggles for the people. There was already a revolutionary uprising in the east of Congo, fighting against Mobutu Seso Seko’s army and the white mercenaries he hired. The Congolese revolutionaries asked the Cubans for help to resist what they saw as another form of colonialism. So, in 1965, Che decided to go with a hundred guerrilla fighters to train the Congolese. However, the reality of the situation was not what he expected, and the mission was a failure. The rebels were not unified – political disagreement, disputed leadership, ill-discipline, poor training, corruption – all characterized the Congolese revolutionaries.Only days after he left Congo, Mobutu made himself dictator, ended democratic elections and multi-party democracy and ruled brutally for thirty years with the backing of Europe and the United States.
TV: Tell us more about your remarkable journey to date- what have been some lessons learned?
BC: We made a great research trip to Cuba to explore the origins of the Che in Congo story and we interviewed former combatants. They all believed that the spirit of Che Guevara lives on through the ideals of honesty, integrity and standing against injustice. Their idea is of a revolution in the heart and mind, and no longer through the barrel of a gun. That was a real insight coming from veterans of the Cuban revolution and the Congo mission. It’s also important to explain to people that we aren’t romanticizing ‘revolution’ or Che Guevara. We’re trying to critically explore a phenomenon whilst being creative in how we do so.
TV: What were the ideals that Che Guevara sought to share with the people of Congo, and how well do you think they resonate with the country today?
BC: The ideals of freedom, self-determination, fairness and respect for each other are alive in Congo, you can see them right now in the streets. Just in the last few weeks there have been demonstrations across Congo to persuade the current President – Joseph Kabila – to stand down after his two terms as President have expired. There is a real fear that he wants to change the constitution to allow a third term. I know from my work in Congo that many people desperately want to improve their lives. They want security, housing, jobs – all the things that any free citizen anywhere would want. The use of force as a tool for change – like that advocated by Che – has no place in the Congo of today. In fact, it has only led to more violence and instability. That’s a key angle of the CHE IN CONGO story that fascinates me and one that I will be exploring in my films.
TV: How does your project help challenge stereotypes about Congo and even the African continent?
BC: We’re not going in with a news or journalistic agenda. We often hear that Congo’s conflict is ethnic and there’s a “cycle of violence”. That’s a simplified story written by the media – it’s not how Congolese people understand their own lives and history. In our journey we will be listening and people want to be heard, to engage. I love the fact that photography and film can bridge oceans and cultures, and can connect people all the way in Manhattan to a miner working in Katanga. When that happens, prejudices and stereotypes can be banished.
TV: What obstacles have you faced during this process?
BC: The main obstacle to projects like this are getting exposure for the project and raising the funds. We have self-funded the work as far as we can and now we’re reaching out to family, friends, networks and the wider world! The positive side is that crowd-funding is also an opportunity to connect with new audiences and supporters, to find people who share our interests and passions like IJINLE AFRICA. That’s very cool and immensely rewarding in itself.
TV: To many who are unfamiliar with the country, the idea of “the Congo” may seem farfetched and out of remote consideration. What conversations do you hope to stir up as a result of this engagement?
BC: We hope that people will take a fresh approach to Congo and listen more to Congolese people. We still need to be asking our governments including African Union member states – what kind of agenda are they really following in Congo? How are foreign businesses operating in Congo?
TV: How can individuals interested in learning more about your work lend their support?
BC: We would love IJINLE AFRICA’s audience to check out our website and FundRazr page! We want to fund the project by crowd-funding with pledges from people who are passionate about the region, political history, photography and film! I think that if you have a political and ethical antenna for how Congo and Africa are often represented in the media, this would be a great project to support. We think it’s really unique. We’ve packed a load of information on the project and the story into our website www.cheincongo.com There’s our video, photos by Jan-Joseph from his work in DR Congo, the research trip to Cuba as well as bios of the team. Readers can also ask us questions via the FundRazr page; we’re really keen on engaging with supporters about the story.
Feature image caption: The FDLR rebel group, less centralized and more geographically scattered than the rival CNDP rebels, living in different camps built in secret places, made less pretense of administrative control but nonetheless exercised political dominance in substantial parts of North Kivu. It sought to profit from exploiting local resources, taxing trade, and extorting goods from Congolese who live near its bases. Fighting persist in the east, where rebel holdouts loot, rape and murder. © Jan-Joseph Stok
The Voix is a creative platform that empowers the voices of global storytellers. For more information, visit: Thevoix.com.