In “Colette and Justin,” directed by Alain Kassanda, the French-Congolese filmmaker uncovers a tangled and pivotal era in Congolese history and the central role his grandfather had in the country’s path toward independence in 1960.
The titular protagonists are Kassanda’s grandparents, Colette Mujinga and Justin Kassanda, both born and raised in Zaire, what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, under Belgian rule. In the film, which relies heavily on photographs and footage created by the Belgians, Kassanda asks: “How do you make a film from the oppressor’s archives?” And his answer in the film both complicates and deepens our understanding of the way history is documented.
Kassanda interweaves interviews with his grandparents and archival footage and images, often superimposing his own thoughts on colonization, migration and family. At one point, they watch clips from colonial propaganda that paints the local people as savages, scantily clad with bows and arrows, acting out tribal disputes with “witch doctors.” But as his grandparents point out, it was the Belgian film crew orchestrating these scenes. This interview technique reveals elements that might not have come up otherwise: the exclusion of women from French education, for instance, and the divisions the Belgian government manufactured between the Baluba and Lulua ethnic groups.
Later, when the country achieved independence, Justin joined its nascent government as a senator and participated in a secession movement, leaving Kassanda to reconcile his respect for his grandfather with his admiration for the opposition leader, Patrice Lumumba, who became the country’s first prime minister. The result is a film both intimate and political; informative and profound. It highlights the deep and far-reaching wounds of colonization and offers a balm for its scars.
Colette and Justin
Not rated. In Lingala and French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.