For every competent fiction film about Europeans at this year's Berlinale, Machérie Ekwa Bahongo's debut feature Maki'la stands alone: a volatile portrait of enfants des rues in Kinshaa that overcomes occasional technical deficiencies with its humanism and graceful performance by Amour Lombi in the lead role. Maki (Lombi) is a young street hustler who must reckon with poverty, a violent and dysfunctional husband (Serge Kanyinda) and miserly pimps. She responds to her circumstances with industrious anger and courage. When a sorcerer wants to sacrifice her in a hotel room for wealth and eternal spirit, Maki escapes before he can execute her. In Maki, Bahongo creates a strong, flawed, intelligent woman who never compromises to meet our expectations of sympathy in a protagonist. She has no younger sibling or dream or worthy pursuit that drives the narrative, for this would offer hope where there is little. Her immediate need is money.
The first half of the film features lo-fi but lush cinematography of chaotic Kinshasa streets, including shots of people smoking that push boundaries of close-ups with their sensuality. As the narrative progresses into a dark garage and a plot of friendship and abuse from the charismatic and unpredictable Kanyinda, the image suffers in the low light and becomes overly noisy and unclear. The film's use of music is sometimes overbearing, but equally a magnificent sequence that amplifies a character's heartbeat as she runs away with a stolen loaf of bread is breathtaking.
In the post-screening Q & A a European audience member mystifyingly asked Bahongo why the fundamental tone of the film was so sad. She explained what the reality of many of these Congolose children is, relating a personal anecdote of friends of hers who vanished, seemingly to never return. Whilst Maki'la does not always live up to our western standards of professional filmmaking, whatever that means, it is firmly, loudly and unmistakably a statement, which unapologetically moves in the direction of communicating an experience to an often oblivious Eurocentric audience. Not that it should feel the need to do that. Bahongo's voice will develop, and with her style of personal, rebellious, nerve-inducing filmmaking, one hopes this urgency to speak is satisfied.
~ Theo Macdonald