In light of the recent events in Nepal, Kristof Bilsen’s film “Elephant’s Dream”, which premiered at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival on April 28, takes on a new and interesting perspective. Here are two countries — Nepal and the Democratic Republic of Congo — that have had to rebuild after a history of recent civil war, with each respective nation now heading in a different direction. One has been besieged by Mother Nature, while the other is — well, it wouldn’t be true to say it’s achieved its goal, but “Elephant’s Dream” shows glimmers that the country’s on the right path.
Bilsen’s documentary centres around four people: there’s Henrietta, a Kinshasa post office worker who’s been mired in limbo for the past year about a new training regimen that never seems to appear; rail station security guard Nzai, who just wants to retire so the government can’t complicate his life anymore, and Simon, his colleague and friend; and Lieutenant Kasugna, a stoic firefighter at Kinshasa’s only fire station.
The slightly detached camerawork in this Hot Docs film moves at a snail’s pace, reflecting the unhurried measure of life in Kinshasa. We can see that Bilsen’s characters want to do more, whether it’s Kasugna commenting on how a waiting man’s mind will eventually rebel, Henrietta blankly gazing out her post office window while Bilsen’s camera shifts to bags of undelivered mail in another room, or Simon idly chastizing a young man for not walking fully around the railway station. These are citizens who yearn to do more with their time and talents, and yet the Democratic Republic of Congo government stifles them with unpaid wages, old-fashioned work practices and heaps of red tape.
One scene in “Elephant’s Dream” really stands out as being representational of made and unmade: when a fire truck races to an emergency and the men hop off, unwinding the fire hose, it’s almost pathetic to watch the smoke billowing out of the building’s windows while a lone firefighter is jeered by the crowd. The hose he’s grasping has no nozzle and no water pressure, and the water comes out in such a gurgle, the crowd shouts at him that he’s wasting water instead of doing anything useful.
Here’s a country whose citizens, like Nepal, wants to move forward but are held back by their government. As infrastructure crumbles and workers’ pleas are ignored, there still seems to be movement forward. Bilsen does an admirable job in showing this by keeping the camera still in many shots and letting the action gather itself, as opposed to panning, zooming and editing each scene into just a few seconds. As a result, this Hot Docs movie features a sort of dreaminess that washes over the viewer, the kind of dreaminess you’d feel on a hot and lazy summer day when nothing moves terribly quickly.
The desire may be there, but if the circumstances don’t support it, little gets done.