Wednesday 26 January 2022


By Dimitri Keramitas

Few titles are as painfully ironic as that of Thierry Michel’s excellent but wrenching documentary Empire of Silence, about the long wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - a country that human rights observers don’t consider to be “democratic”, and which doesn’t perhaps qualify as a “republic”.

Yet, as the Belgian director’s lush footage makes clear, this vast land in central Africa could be something akin to paradise. The rolling, forested hills and valleys, the nestling villages, evoke endless fecundity, while the enormous Congo River provides a lifeline to much of the country.

The filmmaker shows the rural population comprising hardy, salt-of-the-earth folk, “beautiful” from the point of view of the camera even in leathery-skinned age - and even in the midst of great suffering. Michel also depicts the French-speaking elites as well as the corrupt warlords, who all give viewers a sense of the talent and energy that have gone to waste in the conflicts.

When the Nobel Laureate Denis Mukwege, a doctor and human rights activist, says in the film that Congo is the “world’s wealthiest nation”, he inadvertently steps towards the slippery slope. For it is the monetization of “paradise” (turning it into an “empire”) that is at the root of a long history of unspeakable brutality. In the past it was minerals such as gold, nickel, copper, then “blood diamonds”, still a lucrative business. Now high tech - smartphones, electric cars, batteries - have made the country an important source of cobalt and rare earths.

Michel isn’t interested in presenting us with an artsy impressionistic documentary. Although the film is extraordinarily vivid, he’s an old-fashioned documentary filmmaker who wants to teach his public. He uses old news footage (including recyclings of his own work), superimposed maps of different regions, talking-head interviews and his own intoning voiceover taking us through the country’s history.

After the ravages of Belgian colonialism - which Michel doesn’t address in this film - the more recent origins of Congo’s ordeal, aside from greed for mineral wealth, have been Cold War politics, mainly the U.S. government’s unwavering support for dictator Mobutu Sese Seku, who ruled for decades. (The director also doesn’t delve back into the CIA-linked assassination of the revolutionary idealist Patrice Lumumba.) One unpalatable “truth” - and there are many in this story - is that Mobutu did keep Congo (then called Zaire) “stable” and unified for years.

Mobutu, finally old and ailing, was overthrown by an unlikely rebel leader named Laurent Kabila. The footage the director shows of Kabila, interviews and his swearing-in ceremony (conducted in French), depicts a bald, round-faced, heavy-set man, with an ingratiating smile.

A long-time opponent of Mobutu as far back as the 1960s, the famed revolutionary Che Guevara, during his Congolese adventure, noted Kabila’s fecklessness. How could such a man force his way to power? For Michel, essentially two reasons: Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries wanted to pillage Congo as much as Western robber-imperialists - Rwanda eventually became one of the world’s largest exporters of (Congolese) diamonds.

When the Congolese people got sick of the foreign intrusions, Kabila ordered out Rwandan troops, including an officer who was a high official in the Congolese army.  Soon afterwards the president was assassinated by his own bodyguard. More grotesque ironies, with evil emerging from the good: Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who overthrew the genocidaires in his nation, and became the West’s example of African modernization, is the chief villain of the documentary. He pursued not just renegade Hutu killers in Congo borderlands, but also refugees, perhaps because they might one day support and join the extremists. Many were abducted and forced back to Rwanda, many were slaughtered. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who’d defeated the mass murderers Idi Amin and Milton Obote, was another “development” icon, but he wound up as Kagame’s partner in crimes against humanity.

The successor to Kabila was his son, Joseph Kabila, who ruled for a number of years, during which time Rwandan and Ugandan influence prevailed once again, and violence continued to be the order of the day. Michel puts together a sort of montage of Joseph Kabila that is fascinating to watch, in a very disturbing way.

We see his swearing-in ceremony, which is an eerie repeat of his father’s, and also glimpses of him as president at various times. But the most intriguing footage is one of him before his father came to power, when he too was a rebel in uniform. This contradicts the idea of Joseph Kabila as just an entitled fils à papa. We can’t help wondering if he may even have been complicit in his own father’s death, though no evidence has emerged, only the fact of Kabila blithely dealing with the regimes that certainly wanted the father dead

Such an extraordinary parade of political villains is dispiriting. Fortunately, Michel gives us a number of moral counterweights. Dr. Mukegwe is the most obvious one, but there are several others: an exiled journalist who speaks truth to power; another doctor, who was nearly killed for refusing to transfer corpses from a mass grave to conceal the crimes of marauding soldiers; a pastor whose congregation and hospital patients were massacred, but who remained in place. Then a number of international dignitaries and human rights activists, the most prominent being Italian official Emma Bonino. But certain ostensibly sympathetic US congressmen seem to reciting boilerplate, or the usual clichéd condemnations, of which the effects have been nil.

The chilling nadir, and taunting riposte to humanitarian efforts, comes with Michel’s recounting of the murder of two UN human rights investigators, an American man and Swedish-Chilean woman. Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan were investigating crimes against humanity committed by warlords and got too close to a node of power. Phone video shows armed men leading them away from the road where they were accosted. We then see first Sharp, followed by Catalan, shot to death.

No one has been prosecuted for the crime, no government or political faction punished. On one hand, after so much grisly violence and suffering, we can question whether the murders of two individuals should be held up as the ultimate atrocity simply because they were white professionals.

But the lack of action by international authorities and Western governments does indicate the utter impunity which reigns. This impunity is the “silence” of the title, the omerta that extends from cowed villagers to Western halls of power.

The director has accomplished a great deal by depicting in vivid texture and comprehensible form the complexity of Congo’s tragedy. But as the story continues into the contemporary moment, we would like him to name some names of the present-day corporate and political criminals responsible for the ongoing situation, and also to examine the legacy of Belgian colonialism, even if he might have already done so in other films.

Michel tries to end on an uplifting note by showing us some sort of tribunal proceeding. It’s not clear where this is taking place, or under whose auspices. Who are the juridical-looking persons presiding, and what are the supposed results supposed to be? We see victims testifying, and villagers chanting in unison about past crimes. The first at least seem authentic; the latter have obviously been rehearsed. Was this a pantomime put on by the Congolese regime, or a “truth and reconciliation” event sponsored by an NGO? The lack of clarity is frustrating, and not very convincing.

Yet Thierry Michel is, on the whole, to be applauded for making this film, as well as his documentary on Dr. Mukegwe (LHomme qui répare les femmes / The Man Who Repairs Women) and several other films about Congo - they should be required viewing for any number of officials and activists, even if another irony is that a Belgian filmmaker is producing such documentaries. – SWAN

All photos courtesy of JHR Films (distribution). Empire of Silence will be in cinemas from March 16. 

Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.

Friday 7 January 2022


When you step into Librairie Calypso, it feels like being home. The French capital’s first bookstore for Outre-mer and Caribbean literature has a warm, cosy ambiance, with founder-director Agnès Cornélie making sure visitors feel welcome.

Located in the dynamic 11th arrondissement, this is the place for fans of authors such as Maryse Condé, Aimé Césaire, and Patrick Chamoiseau - who all hail from the French-speaking Caribbean; the bookstore provides an extensive selection of their work, alongside literature from other overseas (Outre-mer) territories, including Guiana and Réunion.

Meanwhile Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid and many newer Anglophone Caribbean writers are equally represented, among the books in French translation from across the region.

Librairie Calypso also functions as a venue for book launches and for a range of literary events, and it's becoming a beacon for those wishing to discover the richness of Caribbean writing - from Belize to Guadeloupe. 

SWAN recently spoke with Ms Cornélie about her exciting venture, and an edited version of the bilingual interview (done in association with the Caribbean Translation Project) follows.

SWAN: Why did you decide to open a bookstore for Outre-mer and Caribbean books?

AGNÈS CORNÉLIE: J’ai souhaité ouvrir une librairie spécialisée sur les ouvrages des Outre-mer et des Caraïbes car il me semblait important de mettre en valeur les richesses littéraires de ces régions en les regroupant dans un même endroit. En dehors du soleil, des plages et de la musique, elles ont des auteurs de talent qui méritent plus de visibilité.

SWAN: How did you decide on the location?

AC: Quand j’ai commencé à travailler sur mon projet, je souhaitais trouver un local commercial à Paris dans les XIe ou XIIe arrondissements car ils sont dynamiques, familiaux avec aussi beaucoup de librairies ce qui montre que les habitants sont habitués à se rendre en librairie fréquemment. Par ailleurs, je tenais à être dans Paris et non loin d’un métro pour que les clients qui viennent de loin accèdent facilement à la librairie. Mais il y a tout de même des personnes qui pensent que la librairie devrait plutôt être à Saint-Denis ou alors à Créteil… Non, selon moi elle a sa place à Paris, dans la capitale.

SWAN: What has the response been like?

AC: Depuis l’ouverture, je suis contente de l’accueil : les habitants et commerçants du quartier ainsi que les clients sont satisfaits qu’une librairie dédiée aux Caraïbes existe.

SWAN: Can you tell us about some of the shop’s activities during the year?

AC: Durant l’année, j’organise des séances de dédicace et des rencontres-débats avec les auteurs. Il m’arrive d’être présente à des conférences en dehors de la librairie afin de présenter des livres liés au thème.

Il y a eu le lancement d’une nouvelle maison d’édition et des sorties officielles de livres. La librairie a aussi présenté une exposition de photographes guadeloupéens en mai/juin.

Elle a accueilli la première réunion d’un nouveau club de lecture caribéen ainsi que des parties d’un jeu de société sur des légendes créoles : il y avait un DJ c’était très sympathique.

Ce n’est pas lié aux livres directement, mais la librairie a déjà accueilli des tournages pour des interviews/clips d’écrivains, artistes, chanteurs…

SWAN: What has been the feedback / response from Caribbean writers based in France?

AC: Les auteurs caribéens vivant en France sont également contents de l’existence de ma librairie et me sollicitent pour des dédicaces. Donc c’est une bonne chose.

SWAN: How do you see the bookshop evolving in the future? 

AC: J’aimerais que les rencontres avec les auteurs se poursuivent car les clients aiment beaucoup rencontrer leurs auteurs préférés et débattre entre eux.

J’aimerais aussi que l’on sorte de la pandémie afin que je puisse ré-ouvrir la partie salon de thé et que les clients puissent de nouveau s’installer pour déguster une boisson chaude.

SWAN: Will you include books in other languages of the Caribbean, besides French and Creole?

Oui, j’aimerais proposer des livres en espagnol et en anglais mais il faudrait que la distribution des maisons d’édition étrangères soit plus simple en France.

SWAN: What are your views on the possibility of a Caribbean literary festival in Paris?

AC: Il existe un salon du livre jeunesse afro-caribéen, un salon du livre haïtien… donc je pense qu’un salon du livre caribéen serait une très bonne chose. – SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): Agnès Cornélie at Librairie Calypso; the bookshop's interior; works by Jamaica Kincaid in French translation at the store. Photos by AM/SWAN.

Follow the Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter @CaribTranslate