The fable of an old African king and his wayward daughter is updated to present day Brussels to make provocative points about racism, tradition, class struggle, cultural identity and corruption.
More than a decade ago Mweze Ngangura delighted the cinema world with one of the most accessible and entertaining African films ever made, La vie est belle, the rags to riches story of a Congolese musician played by soukous super star Papa Wemba. Now he returns with a modern fairy tale set in the vibrant African emigre demi-monde of contemporary Europe. It was the winner of the most prestigious award in African cinema the Etalon de Yennenga at FESPACO '99. At first glance Pieces d'Identites is the timeless story of an old king, his beautiful if wayward daughter, a dragon of sorts and the prince charming who rescues them; it even has a happy ending. At the same time, Ngangura's simple fable raises some of the most troubling issues of identity facing people of African descent in the ever-widening Diaspora of the late 20th century.
Mani Kongo, the venerable king of the Bakongo, sets out alone on a quest for his long-lost daughter, Mwana, whom he sent to Belgium to study medicine many years before. As soon as he leaves his village and enters the Westernized world he finds his identity challenged. At the travel agency in Kinshasa, young urban trend-setters mistake the king's royal fetishes as the latest fashion statement while customs officials try to confiscate them as imported art objects. Eventually, robbed, homeless and penniless, Mani Kongo is tricked into pawning his royal regalia, literally his "pieces of identity," to an unscrupulous art dealer. (Ironically the authentic headdress used in the film had to be borrowed from a Belgian antique shop.)
The villain of this tale will be Europe itself, an economic and cultural dragon grasping Africa's children, art and spiritual vitality. Europe is represented by a group of recrudescent white mercenaries and freebooters who meet at the Katanga Bar to reminisce about the good old days of colonial exploitation. Their leader Jefke, a former colonial administrator in the Bakongo district, now a police commissioner, continues to harass Africans politically and sexually in Matongue, the Congolese district of Brussels. The film is unflinching in showing the daily indignities Africans face at the hands of racist police and ordinary citizens. But it is also nuanced enough to show some decent white people in the working class boarding house where Mani Kongo finally finds refuge.
If Mani Kongo, symbolizing Africa itself, is ever to recover his ID he must first free himself from that uncritical trust of the West which led him to send his daughter there in the first place. The old king continually contrasts his fond recollections of participating in a delegation of Congolese notables to the Belgium king in 1958 with the shabby treatment he receives there now. Ngangura cleverly represents Mani Kongo's memories of Belgium through '50s newsreel footage so that the only non-fiction footage in the film is actually shown to be propaganda or at least as misleading.
While Mani Kongo has only temporarily lost his ID, the younger generation in the film finds itself adrift in Europe without ever having had one. Mwana (aka Amanda) has just been released from jail for drug-running and is forced to take a job in a strip club where Africans act out Europeans' lurid fantasies of the other. She was seduced and is still pursued by a small-time, designer-clad hustler or sapeur, Viva wa Viva, whose motto is "the brand makes the man." Mwana's eventual rescuer, Chaka-Jo is a mulatto cabdriver, trapped between white and black, the son of an unknown Belgian father abducted from his Congolese mother and placed in a Belgian orphanage. In his frustration, he holds up white bars like a Robin Hood dressed as a Congolese warrior proclaiming himself the "Savior of Humanity." He is played by Jean-Louis Daulne, composer of the film's infectious soundtrack which includes a cameo by Papa Wemba. All these young African characters share a confusion about identity reflected in the fact that each has invented or been given additional names.
This generation is symbolized by a young woman who appears to Mani Kongo in the midst of his despair, not so much a character as an apparition. She tells him her name is Noubia and she was born in Belgium though her heart is in Africa and she represents an African Renaissance. She shows Mani Kongo what Europe really does to Africans by taking him to the forgotten graves of Congolese brought to Belgium a century ago to amuse the King. She raps (an urban idiom with African roots) about her need for the "true African vibration," and she sees Mani Kongo as a "messenger" calling not just Mwana but all of Africa's prodigal children back to their father's house.
Ngangura seems to be suggesting here that an African Renaissance could be catalyzed through the return of educated young Africans, disillusioned with the West yet equipped with modern skills, who would rebuild the continent. Indeed, it is primarily through the know-how and daring of Chaka-Jo that Mani Kongo, representing traditional Africa, survives his stay in Brussels, recovers his regalia and is reunited with his daughter. In return Chaka-Jo avoids becoming the stereotype of the "tragic mulatto" by discovering in Mani Kongo a friend, a father figure, a new identity and a concrete mission for himself in Africa.
As the film draws to a close, Ngangura ingeniously ties together his colorful cast or characters through a series of outlandish coincidences. These coincidences do not reflect blind chance or narrative desperation, but, as in any myth, an ineluctable underlying moral force restoring the characters to their proper identities. This gravity is Africa, an invisible actor throughout the film drawing the characters back to itself - and themselves - from the powerful centrifugal forces of the West. As director Ngangura has said: "I am a modern African. But I still believe in my culture and my ancestors. So I am very interested in making popular African films."
Africanists might feel compelled to note that the Africa represented in Pieces d'Identites is more an ideal than a reality, a place of purely constructive traditions and supportive, welcoming communities. (The film does genuflect in the direction of feminism by suggesting these traditions might need to be broadened to include women.) The path toward development is presented as clear; the characters unhesitatingly leave a decadent Europe to set up their self-reliant clinic in the village. The disagreeable truth is that in many places like the Congo young Africans are fleeing brutal civil wars and economic collapse not returning to their countries. Although critics might label Pieces d'Identites as "escapist" entertainment, we might ask why Africans should have to see only "militant" political films? More importantly, can't "escapist" films hold open the possibility of escape from seemingly intractable social realities by imagining a more hopeful vision of Africa's future?
"A multi-cultural romp which has already proved an audience favorite...Rich in multi-level meaning; flawlessly navigating provocative points about racism, tradition, class struggle, cultural identity and corruption without sacrificing entertainment value." - Variety "A dash of gentle Congolese / Belgian charisma, part comedy, drama, thriller and romance." - Los Angeles Times
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