This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

Director Emmanuel Gras’s latest feature film Makala has been amassing accolades ever since it made its debut in 2017 at Cannes as part of Critics Week official completion. Since then the film has been talked about as being one of the most innovative of its kind, and its director rightly compared to some of the most accomplished filmmakers of our time.

Earlier this week, HeyUGuys had the chance to meet Gras for a short conversation about what makes his film so different from the usual fly on the wall documentaries, and about the effects the experience of making it has had on him and the subject of this beautifully told story. You can read our review of the film here.

First of all, congratulations on such an incredible film. Can you tell us where you found the subject of your story, Kabwita Kasongo?
Yes, we shot the film in the Katanga Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I knew this region before, because I went there several times to film documentaries as a DoP, so I knew the subject of the film before even meeting Kabwita. Because one of my films was about the construction of a road between Korwezi and another city in the Kantaga region, I spent days on the road and saw all these charcoal sellers on the road pushing their bikes, so I began to have this idea about following one them and to make a road movie, but also following from the start of the process to the end. After that, I came back and started looking for the right person to follow. It wasn’t really a casting, but I was with a Congolese journalist friend and we went around some villages to meet people, and when I saw Kabwita I knew that he was the person I wanted to follow.

What was it about him that made you think this is the guy I want to follow?
First of all, it’s really like when you first meet someone, you first look at the physical aspects of the person…so for me, his face and a look he had in the eyes was what fascinated me about him. Because I liked him physically, because I needed someone who I wanted to film. He was kind of shy and soft and after a while, I realised that he wasn’t really that shy, he was just someone who didn’t like to put himself forward and that’s the kind of personality I really like usually.


The film is in three acts and has a fairly conventional narrative arc which most people would usually associate with fiction. What made you choose this kind of structure?
I realised that my other films were very different, they were about places and not about following someone. For this one I realised that I wanted to tell a story about a journey, about someone leaving his home, and because Kabwita also had a goal and was prepared to face any obstacle, so from the beginning of the story it felt almost like fiction.

What do you say to those who say that because of its structure, this isn’t really a documentary, but more like a reconstructed narrative?
People usually think of documentaries like being almost like news reports or interviews, but for me the documentary genre is very vast and that’s why I want to say, of course it’s a documentary, it is a documentary but it is also a narrative film. I think you can call it “Cinema of The Real”, there is a festival in France which is called Cinema du Reel, and I want to pull documentary to this side of the filmmaking. I don’t like naturalism as an institute, I don’t think it’s the best way to depict something real…..and that’s why I defend my work as being documentary work, it’s one kind of documentary of which there are many.

Were there any moments where you were tempted to cut away from something, either because you thought “this isn’t very interesting” or this doesn’t reflect well on my protagonist?
When I was filming no, but the film was not about his intimate life, it was about his work. I had the idea that it would be great to film his family life and the things around him, but there was a line that I never crossed. For example, even though I went to his home,  I deliberately never went into his room. I think it was very symbolic that I didn’t want to see “behind the curtain”, I wanted to respect his privacy. I mean… sometimes the aim of a documentary is to show what people don’t want you to see, but that wasn’t my aim here, so I never tried to cross a certain line. Also, although I filmed a lot of footage of daily life in his village, in the editing I decided to not use it because I thought it wasn’t part of the film. That’s why it looks a bit like a fiction film, usually in every documentary you get one big shot of the place or village or town, but I just did not want to give any context at all, because I wanted it to look different from the usual documentary style.


We see Kabwita go through some really arduous situations by himself, were you ever tempted to get involved or lend a hand?
It was not a relationship where I just left him alone to do get on with thing. The idea was always that if he needed something, I was prepared to stop filming and help him and it happened several times when he was on the bike and even when he was constructing his oven to make the coal. We had a lot of breaks and discussed things, but most of the time I knew that he was someone who knew his job very well, so if he didn’t ask for my help, I knew not to offer it….and he knew his technique and it’s very difficult pushing that bike the right way.

Was it important for you to be able to show how hard life was for him and the huge effort people go through just to make the smallest amount of money?
Yes, that was a big part of that project. When I discovered this job and what they were doing, I was very impressed with this idea of effort, such a huge amount effort for such a little reward. And that was something that I absolutely wanted people to feel, to have the experience of what it mean to do this kind of work…there’s this really big contrast between effort and economical value which was very important for me from the beginning.

Finally, does making a documentary which is so structured make you wish you could move on to fiction?
The thing is, I directed some short fiction films at the start, but then I found my freedom in documentary making. It’s difficult for me to write stories where everything is predicted and with documentary I like the fact that you can’t chose everything and that you have to find your way in reality. I feel more free like that, maybe it’s a paradoxical…. I’ll always have the desire to make something out nothing, so yes I am now currently working on a fiction script.

Are you able to tell us what the film is about?
Yes, it’s about a young woman who decides to steal for a living and has found a good way to do it.

Makala is out in UK cinemas today.