It’s a hard-knock life and then some for 28-year-old Congolese charcoal-maker Kabwita, the focus of this austere but often mesmerising doc from French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras. What Gras has crafted is a quiet, intimate odyssey as Kabwita temporarily leaves his wife, Lydia, and his three young children to travel over 50 kilometres while pushing a bicycle overloaded with several unwieldy sacks to sell his homemade coal in the nearest big town.
Before Kabwita sets off, we watch as he hacks away endlessly at a huge tree with a small axe in order to source wood for his fuel. It’s a poetic sequence, but it’s also clear that this is a task as gruelling as Kabwita’s long walk by night and day along a dangerous main road, where speeding vehicles and ruthless fellow humans constantly threaten to scupper his mission.
‘Makala’ (which means ‘coal’ in Swahili) forces us to feel the drudgery of Kabwita’s day-to-day life by inviting us into his time zone: this is a slow and demanding film. But it’s also a remarkable one at times, helped by some memorable cinematography of hazy, dusty roadscapes. Gras achieves an impressive balance of beauty and pain: this is a film that’s often enjoyable to look at, yet it never lets you take your mind off the extremely tough life it depicts. You’ll never moan about your commute again.