Aesthetic Sensations

Emmanuel Gras’ Makala, winner of the Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prize 2017, lends an observant eye and ear to the story of Kabwita Kasongo, who makes and sells charcoal in rural Congo to buy a tin roof for his wife and infant child. A film photography graduate from ENS Louis Lumière, Gras’ feature documentary debut Bovines (2011) was nominated for a César for Best Documentary, whilst his sophomore feature 300 Homes (2014) observed life in a Marseille overnight shelter. Speaking with ASFF, Gras contextualises the power of cinema to enter into and experience another life through aesthetic sensations.

ASFF: What compelled you to tell the story of this one individual and to follow him on his journey?
A part of the reason why I choose a subject or choose to make a film is that I discover something that is interesting for me. I went to Cabinder, a very specific region of the Congo several times to work as director of photography on different documentaries. It was there I discovered the world of the charcoal producers. I was very impressed by what they were doing, I felt something and because I am a filmmaker, it is not only the subject, which can be both very interesting and important to show, but I need something else – the visual that I can work around.

For this film, it was the vision of a guy pushing a bike that stuck in my mind. When I returned to France I realised that it would be possible to create a film around that, and it is not that I wanted to say something narratively, or I thought the subject of charcoal production was very important because it creates deforestation, it was just the vision that had stuck with me. After working on it, I discovered that it would be interesting to follow one of the guys because their words tell us something about work that doesn’t exist anymore in European countries. It is the kind of work where you really have to give all of your effort for a very small economical value, and that contrast was very powerful to me.

ASFF: Makala is shot with a cinematic aspect, which creates a contrast to traditional expectations of a documentary as a piece of non-fiction. Do you think a transformation of the documentary aesthetic is seemingly taking place?
For me, the cinematic aspect of it is not the most important thing and yet nothing can exist in my films without that. Everything that I am trying to do is to create sensations and an experience of life for the audience by the way of the cinema. Only by recreating the reality in a cinematic way can you take the audience and allow them to be intrusive in sharing this other life. I am not trying to create pretty images, but create those that can make the audience feel in their bodies and minds what this life is by way of these sensations.

This can be reached and they can discover something about who they are, whilst also expanding their knowledge of the world. So it’s not a film that gives you information for your brain, it’s a film that gives you sensations that allows you to experience life in another way. With journalism and literature this possibility is different, but through image and the sound it’s possible to be in the skin of someone else.

ASFF: Cinema has the strength of presence to counter the perspective of the world that is cultivated by the mainstream news media. Is the ability of documentaries such as Makala to counteract this rhetoric the source of cinemas importance in creating a more expansive and considered discussion?
EG: Everybody can feel how we are full of images, and often when on a film I think: Wow, what can I bring to it different than what I can see in all the other films and images. It’s mainstream media, but it’s also the internet and so there is no subject in the world that has not already been filmed. Yet there is often something that is missing. It is like it’s dry, it’s taking the life out of what you see.

For example, one of my first feature films [Bovines] was about cows and I am sure you and everyone has seen a lot of images of cows. I was afraid nobody would be interested because everybody had the feeling of knowing what they are. Then I realised that no, you see a lot of images in mainstream movies, in news, everywhere, but it is like they are flat, and with cinema you can find a depth, the life of it. It is not enough to bring images to life, you have to bring life to images, to create something that is not only new, but meaningful. With film, because you are working on sensations you can do that. Life is killed by the mainstream media and so it’s to bring not the truth, but the depth of what you are filming that the cinema is able to create.

ASFF: Is there a transformative aspect to the process of making a film?
The documentaries put me in a situation I would not be in in my daily life and so I always learn something about myself. I can’t say exactly what I am experiencing is a transformation from the beginning to the end, but what I can say is that when I am filming, I see things in a deeper way than I will in my everyday life. I’ll give you an example. Walking down the street I am just like anybody. I can see people doing things around me, but I don’t really look. If I am doing a film about the street, then while filming I will begin to really look at what’s happening. Now, that’s not transformation from the beginning to the end of the shoot, but a transformation from the state where I am in my daily life, where by making a film I give the world around me more attention. So that’s why I make films.

Makala released by Dogwoof screens at select theatres across the UK throughout February 2018. For more information and screening venues by date click here.

Paul Risker

1. Still from Makala. Courtesy of Dogwoof.