New York filmmaker Daniel McCabe readily admits that, when most Americans think of Congo, their first thoughts are almost entirely negative.
Some will think of the use of rape as a weapon of war in the pervasive conflicts that have wracked the vast Central African country. Others will think of it as a harvesting ground for valuable minerals, like coltan, without which the smartphones and gadgets that Westerners so treasure would be defunct. And for others still, the first thought would be of the 1995 Michael Crichton movie that feature killer gorillas protecting a rare diamond.
But McCabe, 38—who spent over three years filming a documentary in Congo—says that shouldn’t be the case. It’s the “most beautiful country in the world,” McCabe tells Newsweek ahead of the New York premiere of his film, This is Congo , at the DOC NYC festival on Sunday.
“If Congo was managed properly…if there was stability, if we remove corruption in the army, if we remove these armed groups, if we create infrastructure and have stability in that country, this is going to be the paradise, more than any place I’ve been in the world, and I’ve traveled a lot.”
Despite his overwhelmingly positive outlook on the country, McCabe’s documentary focused on a dark period of its recent history: the violent mutiny of a group of disaffected Congolese soldiers, known as the M23, between 2012 and 2013.
The M23 rebellion is one of a patchwork of messy uprisings in eastern Congo, a region rich in minerals but which has been brutalized by war for decades. Between 1998 and 2003, eastern Congo was the site of a complicated war that pitted the national army against a range of militias—some that were allegedly backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda—that killed millions of people either directly or indirectly.
McCabe and his team were based in the hub of eastern Congo, Goma—which he describes as “a wild slew of businessmen, soldiers and humanitarian workers” located at the bottom of a volcano, which is “kind of trippy”—when the M23 launched their rebellion in 2012.
The documentary charts the course of the conflict by following four key characters: an inspirational army commander, Mamadou Ndala; an illicit mineral dealer; a tailor displaced by fighting; and an army colonel who acts as an anonymous whistleblower.
McCabe says that part of his purpose in shooting the film was to help make Congo comprehensible. “My hope is that in seeing this film, it will contextualize a lot of the components of the conflict in Congo that keep it confusing and in the shadows. When you can’t succinctly summarize things into a three-minute news report, or when a reader or viewer becomes confused, they just move on,” he says.
But to the outside perspective, things only seem to be getting murkier in Congo. While the M23 conflict ended with a rebel surrender in late 2013, instability has never been far away.
President Joseph Kabila’s failure to step down at the end of his second—and, according to the constitution, final—term in 2016 has created a political crisis, which critics say Kabila is exploiting to remain in power beyond constitutional limits. Meanwhile, in the country’s Kasai region, a conflict pitting a militia loyal to a killed tribal leader, Kamwina Nsapu, against the army has killed thousands, displaced over 1 million and drawn the attention of the United States. In March, two U.N. investigators— American Michael Clark and Zaida Catalan, a Swedish-Chilean —were killed, and it’s still not clear whether government soldiers or rebels were responsible.
McCabe says he is worried that Congo’s reputation as a drain on international resources—it is home to the largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world, with nearly 22,000 personnel and a $1 billion-plus budget —could see a withdrawal of U.S. engagement, particularly under the Trump administration, which has vowed to slash contributions to the United Nations.
He admits that Congo is a “PR nightmare” for someone like President Trump. “When we’re talking about Trump, I imagine on his list, he’d be like: ‘It’s bad PR, we gotta lose it, scrap it. Who cares about those people? Next.’”
But while he doesn’t think a U.S. disengagement in Congo would be helpful, McCabe does say that Congo’s problems must ultimately be solved internally. He holds up the character of Mamadou—who led the Congolese army unit that was key in ending the M23 rebellion—as an example of of Congolese working out their own solutions to the country’s problems.
“That’s what Congo needs. If we as outsiders take that from them, nothing’s going to change,” says McCabe.