The principal attraction of Thierry Michel’s Belgian documentary about the despot born Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, co-written by Lye Mudaba Yoka, Professor of Literature at the University of Kinshasa, is the riveting nature of the man’s story—and its Shakespearean dimensions. Born in the colonized Belgian Congo, Mobutu grew up continually humiliated, and smart. In 1949, he was impressed into the Belgian Congolese Army for rancorous behavior. In 1956 he joined the Congolese National Movement, which agitated for independence. After he negotiated this independence, Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s—now Zaire’s—first elected prime minister, appointed Mobutu to his cabinet. But the loyalist betrayed his mentor, angling for his own grab at power. Later that year, a coup d’état, which Colonel Mobutu headed, left in presidential power Lumumba’s coalition partner, Joseph Kasavubu. Early in 1961, Lumumba was assassinated—by African mercenaries at the behest of Eisenhower’s C.I.A. (Michel omits all mention of U.S. involvement.) Mobutu betrayed Kasavubu, seizing power for himself in 1965. Mobutu cashed in on Lumumba’s reputation by rehabilitating it in 1966. In 1972 he renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga: “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” His “presidential” reign, which increasingly mired Zaire in poverty, instability and corruption, lasted thirty-two years. In 1997 a coup removed Mubutu, and Zaire became the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Michel’s lively, always engaging film isn’t exactly probing; Shakespeare Michel is not, and we never gain access to whatever veins of guilt may have penetrated Mobutu’s mind and soul. However, we note Mobutu’s gradual passage from a slender, spectacularly handsome, often smiling young man to a stocky, glum, ugly, medal-festooned dictator. A picture is worth a thousand words.
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