To lead the mineral-rich Congolese province of Katanga, you don't have to be named Moïse. But Moïse Katumbi, the current governor and "star" of Katanga Business, and Moïse Tshombe, the leader who tried to break away from newly-independent Congo in 1960, have the French version of the name "Moses" in common. And this: the ground they rule(d) is the source of international competition, a contemporary Scramble for Africa over precious cobalt, coltan, tungsten, and plain old copper.
Like the hero of Chinua Achebe's novel, "A Man of the People," Governor Katumbi is a "Big Man," the kind of African leader who, as long as he continues to distribute largess to his people, remains popular. He's the guy - you guessed it - in the black cowboy hat on the poster. Katumbi is a sort of reverse Obama; his father was a Jewish exile from Hitler's Europe who took refuge and thrived in then Belgian Congo.
Belgian documentary film maker Thierry Michel's latest work, just released in Belgium and France, is a "sort of economic parable via an industrial saga," according to the director. Michel knows the Congo (DRC) well; he's been making films there on and off for the last 17 years, and shot Katanga Business over five separate trips. Note to self: must go and rent DVDs of his other Congo films; two of the latest were Congo River and Mobutu, King of Zaire.
For francophones, the film's official website offers an interview with Michel, where he gives credit to Governor Katumbi for being a "modernist, extracting agreements from international mining companies to develop the province's agriculture," but at the same time calls him "an ambivalent figure, a capitalist/populist mix of Silvio Berlusconi and Hugo Chavez." Colette Braeckman, Africa correspondent of Le Soir, paints a lively portrait of the man's ambiguities here.
In an extensive interview with Fabienne Bradfer of Le Soir, Thierry Michel expands on his fascinating Governorator:
He's a wealthy businessman, who governs like he runs his businesses (like Berlusconi, he too has TV station and football club). He was elected because he was very rich; for the Congolese, being rich means he's less likely to try to enrich himself and therefore better able to govern the province. He's visionary, charismatic, and a communicator.
But Katanga Business is not a biopic of a provincial African governor, photogenic as he is. It's about globalization, capitalism, and economic colonialism. Thierry Michel turns Chinese wildcat investors, Belgian holdover industrialists, and Canadian "pension fund" investors into a rich mix, but none are caricatured as they might be in a Michael Moore film on similar ground.
The most dignified players - though some of them are reduced to begging for handouts from "papa" the governor - are the Congolese miners. Creuseurs or diggers, they try their best to maintain discipline (it's their byword) in set-piece confrontations with politicians, employers, and police. The odds are always against them - anyone would be intimidated by the armored, helmeted, and masked Congolese police, bearing down on the workers with tear gas, batons, and bullets.
Hemmed in between Chinese and Western investors, cajoled by politicians in suits or cudgeled by police looking like Samurai warriors, the barefooted miners have only one choice: work, for whatever pittance their masters deign to hand out. The word "slavery" is used more than once - not by the narrator, but by the men who provide the world what it needs to keep its mobile phones charged.
In places from Katanga to Kazakhstan, "business" (often pronounced beeznis with a leering grin), is synonymous with corruption, exploitation, and destruction. It's a long way from nostalgic Main Street notions of private enterprise. In other words, a timely film, one that presents lessons beyond Lumbumbashi.