Mobutu, King of Zaire: An African Tragedy. First Run/Icarus Films.
Reviewed by David Moore
Published on H-SAfrica (January, 2002)
Mobutu, King of Zaire -- The Classroom Version
Historical studies in the "great"--and not so great--leader tradition often focus too much attention on the personal idiosyncrasies of the powerful individuals at hand. The filmic media tend to exaggerate this phenomenon. It is undoubtedly easier to concentrate on a few people talking about one person than to capture gradually unfolding social processes. Also, the genre as a whole has developed expectations of heroes, anti-heroes, and the action generated by the conflict between them, rather than explorations of society at large. One might think that a commercial film would be more prone to this fault than one produced for university students. However, this seems not to be the case with <cite>Mobutu: King of Zaire</cite>. <p> I watched the first version in a cinema and could not stop talking about it for a week. However, the video reviewed here, watched late at night on a small screen, seemed not nearly as inspiring. The first, shorter and quicker-paced version produced for the commercial market--and very well-received it was, deservedly so--seems to pack more processual punch than the three-part series (presumably a classroom version conveniently packaged into three fifty minute segments as opposed to the straight 135 minutes of the screen version of mid-1999). <p> Perhaps Thierry Michel's over 200 hours of film on Mobutu's rise and fall do not have any more content than what is contained in the well-packed and very powerful "first edition." Maybe it is just that sitting through the three sections at one sitting, restlessly waiting as the continuity segments mark the moments between the parts, makes them seem too pedantic, but simultaneously too thin. It could be that one just gets sick of watching a progressively more depressed Mobutu take up the screen--while in the first version there was not enough time to dwell on the homily "having all the money in Zaire will not make you happy." While viewing the video, one thinks that it would be better for a lecturer to get the commercial version and book a two-hour lecture slot, with a big screen and cutting out the credits, than to stretch the material to fit a whole week or more of short lecture slots. <p> Another reason for this reviewer's dissatisfaction with the classroom version compared with the first one may not lie in the difference in the films. It is possible that even the first version was not as good as thought, because in the intervening time two very good books appeared. They make one realise just how much better a good book is than even an excellent movie. This in itself may not be a bad lesson for students (although it should be emphasised that the film is excellent and students should see it--perhaps all that is at stake here is a lecturer's puritanism about films creeping in to the classroom). The journalistic mode of Michaela Wrong's <cite>In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz</cite> is not only stylistically cinematic, but gets the IMF side of the story on Mobutu's missing billions missed by Michel. It also presents a nearly fly-on-the-wall view of American geo-strategists straining to get Mobutu to give up the ghost as Laurent-Désiré Kabila strolled up to the doors of power. Michel also misses this, although Mobutu's son-in-law, Pierre Janssen, mutters something about his bitterness at the fickleness of Mobutu's one-time supporters. Ludo de Witte's <cite>The Assassination of Lumumba</cite>, aside from settling the issue of "who killed Lumumba," shows the incredible detail necessary to present convincing accounts of crucial historical moments. <cite>King of Zaire</cite> merely scratches the surfaces, but there are so many of them to scratch, from Mobutu's psychological traits to superpower intrigue to constitutional finagling and scores of revolts from below, that the film cannot but be commended for venturing into all of them. It certainly signposts the most important moments of Mobutu's rule, although it is a bit hazy about all the details (especially in the years between Lumumba's murder and Mobutu's taking over of <cite>all</cite> Zaire: for this, Che Guevara's diaries are very helpful, especially Richard Gott's introduction ). Lectures will certainly be needed in addition to the series. Instructors had better be prepared for at least another week on Zaire, and more on the DRC. <p> To be brief about its bad side, the stretched rendering does not add value to an already very valuable source. The second version seems to make up the extra minutes with too much focus on the man himself. The viewer becomes inundated with visions of a glazed Mobutu towards the end of his reign, while all except his billions of dollars tumbles around him. He reaches behind his horn-rimmed glasses to wipe his easily induced tears once too often for us to have any more patience with him--or his documentarists. Perhaps like Mobutu's paymasters in real time, when 1997 finally rolls around we are sick and tired of his pretense, ready to embrace anyone promising to replace him to restore the flow of mineral wealth to the advanced capitalist world. <p> Even with the hindsight afforded by the last four years of sorry DRC rule, by the end of this film Laurent-Désiré Kabila looks better than Mobutu (but, as some of my senior colleagues tell me, at least until he was too old, Mobutu kept Zaire in some state of togetherness). We see the late Kabila chuckling merrily while soldiers parade past him in the Congo's east (although the film tells us nothing of his backers at the time, Rwanda and Uganda). Later, he feigns interest while Nelson Mandela struggles diplomatically to acknowledge both him and the broken man he was about to replace as the head of the heart of Africa as "great sons of Africa"! By then, all we can think about Mobutu is why, if he was so concerned to be a "king," didn't he get the succession issue tied up? <p> The film's title is more than coincidental: its abiding theme is that Mobutu wanted desperately to be a "king" just like his fair-weather friend, Belgium's Baudouin. Alongside many illustrations of how Mobutu managed to be everything but king--including fascinating footage where we see Mobutu mimic his mentor almost gesture by gesture as they parade by the masses--we are told more than once that Mobutu was obsessed by the fact that only thirty-four days separated their births. <p> One of the film's most tragicomic moments is an interview revealing that Mobutu's letters to the Belgian palace were no longer reciprocated. Maybe, one is almost forced to think at these moments, he should have been given the chance to become a monarch. Maybe Zaire should have been given the opportunity to pass though some sort of political stage of feudalism or absolutism instead of being forced onto American paths of republican democracy. Maybe if the option of "constitutional monarchy" had been on the cards at the 1991-1992 National Conference, fewer demonstrators would have been left to their death when he closed it. But our fantasies of pleasant solutions get smashed as soon as the film moves on and we see, once again, the symmetry of his despotism and imperial desires, even when the Cold War was over and Mobutu was in decline. The many interviews with the "advisors" to what oft-interviewed Congolese playwright Lye Modoba Yoka called the "black king"--from personal architects to Belgian "paymasters" and "economic advisors," throwbacks to European colonialism every one (except for CIA man Larry Devlin, who is one of American neo-colonialism's remainders)--were evidence enough of that. <p> Come to think of it (and to return to complaints about the second edition of the film), one of the most intriguing parts of <cite>Mobutu</cite> Mark I was one nasty American (perhaps Devlin: I cannot remember) recalling that he gave the young pretender a copy of Machiavelli's <cite>The Prince</cite>. He remarked that Mobutu had learned it rather well. For one reason or another, that anecdotal gem did not make it to the classroom video. The cutting of that scene removed an excellent pedagogical device. Was the average American sophomore deemed unable to straddle the "western" implications of such textual interplay with the sometimes "Africa exceptional" tone of the film to make more universal conclusions about the colonial, neo-colonial, and "post"-colonial implications of the matter at hand? There is plenty of evidence of other, direct, ways of western influence. <p> We witness the fawning of various heads of advanced capitalist states and learn that Mobutu contributed to their election campaigns. We discover that he stayed at George Bush, Senior's house at least twenty-four times and that the CIA chief-cum-president actually adopted some of the wannabe king's children, and we are shown the mines coveted by the west (or more precisely, the international bourgeoisie). <p> Yet as far as political philosophy goes we are left with the impression that Mobutu is distinctly "African"--an impression he tried to cultivate, as his campaign for "authenticité" showed, while deftly manipulating "western" traditions in international relations. He is captured saying to the UN General Assembly in 1989 that "when we address the issue of human rights, we must know what men and rights we are talking about ... [because] the freedom that we hold so dear mingles with anarchy." He then pauses for about half a minute while UN police usher protestors out of the assembly hall and into waiting police vans. We can see that he used the "international community's" pretense of equal rights to all "sovereign" leaders to good effect, while simultaneously manipulating the confusing "western" discourse on "order" and "liberty" so deftly used by the defenders of "universal values" in the Cold War era. He is seen, many years earlier, telling a journalist in response to a question about whether or not Zaire is "democratic" that "we are Bantu and we have our own moral code.... So, [there is] no democracy ... well, not to the letter ... for us you can't play around with a chief." One of his Ministers of Information (there are two interviewed, and they do not hesitate to betray their former boss!) tells us that he may have used too much "black magic"--it has a tendency to rebound if used indiscreetly--and that he might have supped human blood. A viewing of a good dose of Machiavelli might have lessened the images of "primordialism" offered by such candid insights, and doused some cold water on Mobutu's blatant misuse of Senghorian excuses for not worrying about universal values when they threatened his power. <p> In closing I should make it clear that this is a remarkable film (or "these are remarkable films")--that I am carping about relatively minor issues in a film of almost literally fantastic footage and revealing interviews--and that there should be more available on other African countries. It is just a pity that for some reason someone thinks that award-winning cinema must be repackaged for classroom use. <p> Notes: <p> . Michaela Wrong, <cite>In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo</cite>. London: Fourth Estate, 2000. <p> . Ludo De Witte, <cite>The Assassination of Lumumba</cite>, tr. Ann Wright and Renee Fenby. London: Verso, 2001. <p> . Ernesto "Che" Guevara, <cite>The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo</cite>, tr. by Patrick Camiller. London: Harvill Press, 2000. <p> . One example is "Colonel Marliére," who the film informs us was the head of Belgian military forces in colonial Congo, but on Mobutu's rise to power became his "technical advisor." It takes De Witte's <cite>The Assassination of Lumumba</cite> to fill in the details of Marliére's involvement in Lumumba's elimination, and many other unsavory doings, to really get a taste of the nastiness of these characters. The film simply has Marliére commenting on how early Mobutu demonstrated his bribability--not his own role it. In the film these characters all look old and harmless; perhaps portraits from an earlier age may have made them look less benign. Larry Devlin's story about how he told Mobutu to stop drinking at the height of the Lumumba crisis "or [he] would fail" to keep his country out of the hands of the Soviets "and I did not, certainly my country did not" want that to happen, only subtly indicates just how closely Mobutu was tutored in the early days. For the most part the other western advisors and observers are content to reminisce either on Mobutu's uncanny political skills or on his idiosyncrasies. <p> . For an excellent documentary film on democratic struggles in Zimbabwe, see Edwina Spicer and Richard Saunders, <cite>Never the Same Again</cite>. Harare: Edwina Spicer Productions, 2001. <p>
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
David Moore. Review of , Mobutu, King of Zaire: An African Tragedy.
H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.