Perhaps the most striking thing about Emmanuel Gras’s beautifully understated feature documentary Makala, is how uncompromising it is in its storytelling technique and how compelling it manages to be without ever overstepping the mark into exploitation or deliberately manufacturing events in order to further the narrative.

Set in The Democratic Republic of the Congo the film follows the story of Kabwita Kasongo, a slight and self-effacing young charcoal seller from a rural village as he takes on a mammoth journey from the humble home he shares with his wife and his two children, to the city where he hopes to sell the fruits of his arduous labour.

Makala The film starts at dawn as we see our hero attempting to cut down an old robust tree using a small axe and nothing more. The camera lingers on the young man as he chops at the tree uninterrupted for what seems like an eternity. As the tree is finally cut down, Kabwita’s next challenge is to make a “bush oven” in which the charcoal is manufactured and then packed into big sacks for him to sell in the city. However the real adventure begins when our hero is seen loading sack after sack of precious coal onto a push-bike and wheeling it out onto the main road leading to the city.

Step by step Kabwita is seen struggling to keep going as his load seems to get heavier by the second. Surrounded by similarly desperate coal sellers making the same voyage as our hero, Kabwita meets hurdle after hurdle, but refuses to give up even when the situation seems desperate.


Director Emmanuel Gras manages the impossible by offering a documentary like no other. His ability to convey his protagonist’s resilience in the face of challenge is truly remarkable. By offering a story which manages to be both simple and extraordinary at the same time, Gras also allows us to make our own judgement on how the other half lives. Never berating or even injecting his own commentary on what is taking place on screen, the director is able to tell a story of almost biblical proportions without ever being deliberately moralising.

Though at times exhausting to watch due to its unrelenting depiction of hardship, Makala offers a genuine departure from the usual fly on the wall documentaries. While managing to be both realistic and cinematic at the same time, Makala also offers its audiences a rare chance to immerse themselves into a culture most of them would have little or no knowledge of at all. A truly outstanding film which deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

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Linda Marric is a senior film critic and the newly appointed Reviews Editor for HeyUGuys. She has written extensively about film and TV over the last decade. After graduating with a degree in Film Studies from King's College London, she has worked in post-production on a number of film projects and other film related roles. She has a huge passion for intelligent Scifi movies and is never put off by the prospect of a romantic comedy. Favourite movie: Brazil.
makala-reviewA stunning depiction of a life most of us will never experience. This is an incredible documentary which pushes the format to new heights of meaning and is ultimately extremely rewarding.