‘Downstream to Kinshasa’ Review: Sisyphean Persistence

The bow of a barge cuts through rippling water, carrying a boatload of people down the Congo River. Crammed in with barely any space to move, the passengers banter, dance, cook, eat, sleep and cling desperately to sheets of tarpaulin when the rain pours.

The camera stays with a small group of disabled men and women within this jostling mass. These are the survivors of a bloody six-day conflict fought between Uganda and Rwanda in Kisangani, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2000. They are on their way to Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, to demand their long-overdue government compensation, which the survivors say amounts to $1 billion.

A documentary about Sisyphean persistence in the face of institutional indifference, “Downstream to Kinshasa” is riveting in these boat scenes. The director Dieudo Hamadi enters the fray with his subjects, his gaze neither voyeuristic nor ethnographic. As he threads through the boat with his hand-held phone camera, his lens is lashed by the wind and raindrops; later, when the survivors demonstrate at Congo’s parliament, the police repeatedly swat the director’s camera away.

Hamadi intersperses these electric scenes of protest with quieter moments of the survivors fiddling with their cheap and uncomfortable prosthetic limbs, debating strategy and staging plays about their experiences. The film sometimes flags in energy as it cuts between these different strands, but its pace feels faithful to just how halting the fight for justice can be when democracy becomes impenetrable to those it serves. Watching the subjects of “Downstream to Kinshasa” — whose tenacity the movie honors but never romanticizes — it’s hard not to wonder: What good is the right to protest if it falls on deaf ears?

Downstream to Kinshasa
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In Lingala and Swahili, with subtitles. On virtual cinemas.

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