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Belgian film-maker Thierry Michel is renowned for focusing his camera on controversial topics in Africa. Talking about his latest documentary, he tells Nina Lamparski why the Congo’s unregulated mining business is undergoing a revolution 24 | Brussels Airlines b.spirit! magazine | May/Jun 09 Brussels Airlines b.spirit! magazine | May/Jun 09 | 25 n Thierry Michel’s latest film is set in Katanga, one of DRC’s most mineral- rich provinces

Transcript of Man of the people

  • Brussels Airlines b.spirit! magazine | May/Jun 09 | 25

    l a t emprisonn, il a subi des menaces et les autorits africaines lont mis sur une liste noire. Mais jusqu prsent aucun obstacle ne sest avr

    insurmontable pour empcher le ralisateur et scnariste belge Thierry Michel de poursuivre son travail. Par ses reportages, il contribue inlassablement donner la Rpublique Dmocratique du Congo ce dont elle a sans doute le plus besoin en tant que nation post-coloniale et indpendante : une abondance darchives audiovisuelles sattachant suivre la chronique mouvemente de son histoire passe et prsente. Dans une rgion qui a t durant trop longtemps dpourvue de ses archives historiques, cet homme calme et charismatique a acquis un statut de quasi lgende auprs de la population locale.

    Le bar de lhtel chic dans lequel nous avons rencontr le ralisateur Bruxelles, pour nous entretenir de son dernier documentaire, Katanga Business, est aux antipodes des tendues de plaines rouges, des villages poussireux et des territoires exotiques quil a explors avec sa camra durant plus de 30 ans.

    Au cours de sa brillante carrire, T. Michel a fait la lumire sur laide humanitaire arme en Somalie, lhritage colonial de lAfrique et le rle socio-culturel du fleuve Congo. Ce qui lui a sans doute valu sa plus grande renomme est ce portrait du dictateur Joseph-Dsir Mobutu, un film intimiste en trois volets, ralis aprs la disgrce du dirigeant la suite dun long rgne de trois dcennies, sur un pays alors connu sous le nom de Zare. Diffuse en 1999, cette tragdie shakespearienne a largement continu circuler en RDC sous forme de copies pirates, cest en tout cas ce quattestent les media locaux.

    Toutefois, malgr la nature critique de son travail, Michel confirme que son but nest pas de juger mais bien de lancer des dfis et de confronter les situations.

    Avec Katanga Business, ce Wallon de 56 ans saventure dans un nouveau territoire. Alors que ses films prcdents tournaient plus autour de sujets socio-politiques, ce nouveau documentaire examine la guerre conomique implacable que sont en train de se faire les hommes daffaires europens, amricains et chinois, tous concurrents dans la course aux contrats qui se chiffrent en plusieurs millions de dollars dans les mines du Katanga, lune des provinces les plus riches en minerais de la RDC.

    Le choix de son sujet, comme le dit Michel, a t en partie influenc par son enfance dans la ville de Charleroi, en Wallonie, autrefois un important nud industriel de la production du charbon et de lacier, qui se bat aujourdhui contre le chmage et la pauprisation.

    Mon grand-pre tait mineur, jai donc grandi baign dans la culture des travailleurs et jai acquis une forte conscience sociale, dclare-t-il. La rgion est connue comme le Pays Noir et jai dvelopp une fascination pour les paysages rudes et les visages des gens marqus par des rides profondes, par les annes de labeur sous terre. Une autre chose ma galement marqu, cest le dclin dun monde avec la fermeture des usines et en corollaire des vies brises.

    la diffrence de Charleroi, les mines du Katanga

    Le ralisateur belge Thierry Michel a la rputation de centrer son objectif sur des sujets de controverse en Afrique. Lors dune interview sur son dernier documentaire, il a expliqu Nina Lamparski dans quelle mesure lactivit minire non rglemente au Congo est en train de connatre une rvolution

    Lhomme du peuple

    24 | Brussels Airlines b.spirit! magazine | May/Jun 09

    e has been jailed, threatened and blacklisted by African authorities for his work. Yet, to date, no obstacle has proven big enough to stop Belgian director and

    writer Thierry Michel from contributing to what the Democratic Republic of Congo possibly needs most as a post-colonial, independent nation: an extensive audiovisual archive chronicling the countrys turbulent past and present. In a region that for too long has been devoid of historical archives, this quiet, charismatic man holds near-legendary status among locals.

    The fancy Brussels hotel bar where we meet to discuss Michels latest documentary, Katanga Business, is a far cry from the red plains, dusty villages and exotic territories he has explored with his camera for more than 30 years.

    In the course of his award-winning career, he has put the spotlight on armed humanitarian aid in Somalia, Africas colonial heritage and the socio-cultural role of the Congo River. Most famously perhaps, Michel is the author of an intimate three-part film portrait of dictator Joseph-Dsir Mobutu,

    H n Thierry Michels latest film is set in Katanga, one of DRCs most mineral-rich provinces

    Belgian film-maker Thierry Michel is renowned for focusing his camera on controversial topics in Africa. Talking about his latest documentary, he tells Nina Lamparski why the Congos unregulated mining business is undergoing a revolution


    Unlike in Charleroi, the mines of Katanga continue to thrive. From cobalt and copper to diamonds and radium, the south-eastern region is a veritable investors paradise. However, despite these vast natural resources, widespread corruption and fraud, alongside a lack of organisation and limited investment, have kept the people extremely poor, its infrastructures basic and its public services very limited.

    Under Mobutu, the mines in Katanga were nationalised and run by the state-owned firm Gcamines, which quickly sank into corruption and drove the business to the brink of bankruptcy, says Michel. In the aftermath of his reign, the trade was privatised again, junior companies popped up and, most importantly, renegades keen to make a quick profit started to infiltrate the market to sell off and export raw minerals illicitly. So you have the official sector, in which Western and Asian multinationals use industrial mining methods and bring in their own workers, and the informal, artisanal sector where miners excavate and dig for minerals with their hands in a totally unregulated setting.

    Its a battle fought between big multinational companies from competing continents and emerging economies, as well as a social war for Africans who witness how the profits from their forefathers land benefit everyone except themselves. Of course, there are also enormous environmental damages because the big manufacturing plants deforest large chunks of land, although this is an aspect I havent concentrated on yet.

    Katanga Business, which Michel describes as an economicpolitical thriller based on social violence, shows the many actors involved in the regions drama as everyone tries to get a piece of the cheese.

    Among these figures are the industrial Belgian patriarch George Forrest, whose family mine employs around 80,000 workers; Paul Fortin, a Canadian hired by the World Bank and the Congolese government to save the ailing Gcamines; and Chinese state interests represented by Mr Min, nicknamed the nine-billion dollar man in reference to the investment deal he strikes with Fortin. But Katangas

    Manpeopleof thefollowing his fall from grace after a three-decade long reign of the country that was then known as Zaire. Released in 1999, pirate copies of this Shakespearean tragedy continue to circulate widely around DRC, according to local media reports.

    But despite the critical nature of his work, Michel says his aim is not to judge but to challenge and confront.

    With Katanga Business, the 56-year-old Walloon ventures into new territory. While his previous films have focused more on socio-political topics, this new documentary looks at the uncompromising economic war being waged between European, American and Chinese businesses as they compete for multimillion dollar mining contracts in Katanga, one of the most mineral-rich provinces in DRC.

    Michel explains his choice of subject was influenced partly by his upbringing in the Walloon city of Charleroi, a once-important industrial hub for coal and steel production that now struggles with unemployment and impoverishment.

    My grandfather was a miner, so I became familiar with the workers culture and developed a strong social conscience, he says. The region is known as the Pays Noir [Black Country] and I acquired a fascination for the raw landscape and peoples faces marked by deep wrinkles and years spent working underground. The other thing that marked me was to see the decline of a world as factories shut down and lives were shattered.

    n Left: Large chunks of land are stripped of trees to make way for mines; Right: Paul Fortin and Mr Min are big players in DRCs mining sector

    r Mose Katumbi Chapwe is seen as a local hero when it comes to regulating the mining trade

    Katanga now faces a real chance to revolutionise the way the mining business is run


  • n Katanga Business portrays the struggle and inequality faced by local miners

    26 | Brussels Airlines b.spirit! magazine | May/Jun 09

    continuent tourner. Du cobalt au cuivre et des diamants au radium, le sud-est de la rgion reprsente un vritable paradis pour les investisseurs. Nanmoins, cette abondance de richesses naturelles na russi qu dboucher sur la corruption et la fraude gnralises, allant de concert avec un manque dorganisation et des investissements limits. Rsultat : la population vit toujours dans un tat dextrme pauvret, les infrastructures sont rudimentaires et les services publics particulirement rduits.

    Sous Mobutu, les mines du Katanga taient nationalises et gres par la firme Gcamines, proprit de ltat, qui a rapidement bascul dans la corruption et conduit lentreprise au bord de la faillite, poursuit Michel. Dans la priode qui a suivi son rgne, le commerce a de nouveau t privatis. On a assist larrive de nouvelles jeunes compagnies et, fait important, des rengats soucieux de faire rapidement du profit ont comm