Capturing the urgent, boundless invention of young, politically minded African artists with nothing to lose and everything to communicate, Renaud Barret’s thrilling documentary “System K” showcases a thriving art scene in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital‘s, Kinshasa, that isn’t just born of the streets, but often made and displayed there as well. Through the eyes of the struggling creators we meet, a troubled city embattled by corruption, poverty and the legacy of colonialism isn’t just inspiration — it’s also one big showroom.
A performer who calls himself Kongo Astronaut walks among a quizzical (or ignoring) populace wearing a silvery handmade spacesuit built from disused computer parts, making any underdeveloped area he strolls through seem dystopian by his mere presence. A duo known as Flory et Junior highlight the persistent lack of water and electricity in so resource-rich a country by way of wandering figures dressed in wires, bulbs, switches and bags of water. Elsewhere, a homeless, self-taught, orphaned artist named Béni Baras — unable to prove his half-Belgian/half-Congolese identity in order to get traveling papers — burns discarded plastic goods to make fused, textured works of gnarled beauty.
What connects these and many others featured in Barret’s film, besides their meager means and creative contribution to a city that doesn’t always know what to do about their exhibitive brashness, is the support they get from local, internationally celebrated sculptor Freddy Tsimba, whose serene appearances across “System K” make for a culturally authoritative through line of sorts as we meet the artists and watch them do their thing, come hell or high water.
Tsimba’s own historically conscious work, which he calls “acts of resistance,” creatively recycles the detritus from Congo’s bloodied past and conflict-ridden present — bullet casings, machetes — into towering structures. But even with his own studio and a global name, he struggles with feeling safe. When he and his team assemble latticework walls of welded-together machetes into a makeshift house in the middle of a busy square, he draws a fascinated, ready-to-engage crowd, but also the police, who arrest Tsimba for questioning. “Our Congo is cursed,” a woman says to the camera as people are rounded up.
Also ingeniously upcycling raw materials is the music collective Kokoko!, yellow-jumpsuited masterminds who fuse discarded consumer goods with percussive qualities into inspired instruments, like a pot attached to a typewriter, that they then play as a band. (Their music, which has been featured on NPR, is the ceaselessly vivid, percolating soundtrack to “System K.”)
One of the more gripping personal stories is that of supremely talented visual artist Géraldine Tobe, a slight figure with intense eyes who survived an exorcism as a child and fights to be accepted as a female artist in Kinshasa today. She found her medium after setting fire to her paintings one day in a fit of youthful despair — what called out to her was the manipulatable black smoke left behind, which she now achieves from petrol lamps.
“Smoke is my color,” she says. “Taming fire is my paintbrush.”
The solidarity inherent in Barret’s no-nonsense, you-are-there direction is key to the spark “System K” gives off. With seemingly each follow-along shot in traffic with a performance artist, or close-up on materials being worked, or observed moment of artist connecting with everyday Kinshasans, the movie is giving you process, execution and impact simultaneously.
It makes for one of the more alive portraits of artists in the moment you’re likely to see, a thumping gallery show forged from survival, and assembled out of passion and need. When a bold young man named Yas strips down to shorts, binds his feet and rolls around in muddy streets grasping at a Bible to protest the iron grip of evangelism on so many Congolese, Barret’s camera captures a girl saying, “That’s no life.” But it is art.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Glendale