A documentary on how people living in one of the most chaotic cities in the world – Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – have forged one of the most complex systems of human co-operation ever invented: a symphony orchestra.

Doco shows how music can offer a respite from a harsh daily existence in poverty-stricken Congo.

AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA: In the same vein as Michael Davie’s The Choir comes this enlightening, German-produced documentary which examines the only symphony orchestra in Central Africa.

Kinshasa Symphony focuses on eight members of the 200-strong Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste based in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In some respects it’s a familiar story of the transformative power of music in an impoverished city of nearly 8 million people, and how these musicians and singers overcome their daily tribulations to rehearse for an outdoor concert where they’ll perform the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The doco also touches on the country’s emergence from Colonial oppression (it gained independence from Belgium in 1960) and its struggles to combat poverty, unemployment, crime and a rudimentary health system.

But it deals fleetingly with these potentially intriguing issues. And the film almost certainly would have had a sharper, more compelling focus if the co-directors, Claus
Wischmann and Martin Baer, had concentrated on fewer individuals and not allowed their cameras to linger on humdrum activities such as the musos toiling away at their day jobs and making musical instruments.

The Choir followed members of the choir in South African’s grim Leeuwkop Prison, featuring hardened inmates who spoke about music’s ability to unite, inspire and offer a temporary respite from their generally miserable existence. There’s a similar refrain here as one member of the chorus, Mireille, says, 'When I sing it takes me far away. I’m not here anymore; I’m in a different world."

The early phase of rehearsals is not promising as the orchestra sounds like a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs and its founder and conductor, Armand Diangienda, admonishes his charges, 'The trouble is your hearts aren’t in it."

Diangienda, who trained as a pilot and founded the group in 1994, is a grandson of Simon Kimbangu, a revered figure who established a branch of Christianity, led the opposition to the colonialists, was jailed for sedition and died in prison.

Heritier, a violinist, is refreshingly candid about his musical ability but determined to make the most of his talent, declaring, 'We are amateurs. Our playing is average, not tremendously good. I dream of doing great things with my music."

Joseph, who juggles jobs as an electrician and hairdresser and plays the viola, doubles as the lighting guy. When the power fails, which is often, he puts down his instrument and fixes the generator. Albert, the orchestra’s manager, recalls a lot of instruments were stolen during a 'plundering" (meaning looting) and describes life as a fight to survive.

Nathalie, a flutist and single mother of a young son, speaks movingly about being ditched by her boyfriend when he learned she was pregnant. The camera follows her as she searches for an affordable one-bedroom dwelling to rent in a city with a chronic housing shortage: what she finds is depressingly squalid.

Joséphine, a cellist with a young son who needs a hernia operation, spends long days making omelettes in a street market but says she earns enough only to pay the rent.

There’s a marked improvement in the standard of musicianship as rehearsals continue, although in a couple of instances the filmmakers superimpose the sound of a professional Berlin orchestra over the Kinshasa musos; they may claim that as legitimate artistic licence, I’d call it cheating.

But on the big night, the performance is fine to my untrained ears, and the excitement, joy and pride on the participants’ faces are palpable.

The HD camerawork and Dolby surround sound adroitly convey the noise, dust, bustle and chaotic rhythm of everyday life in Kinshasa, and the concert footage is impressive.


1 hour 35 min