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Cannes: Standing ovation for Benda Bilili

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Will Gompertz | 08:56 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

Cannes: There are over 1,000 films at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which means it's horribly possible to spend your entire time watching duds. Cannes is a game of chance; we hacks are like metal detector enthusiasts who go out each weekend with hopes of finding treasure but know the odds are stacked against them.

benda_bilili_2.jpgWell, on Thursday, just 24 hours after the festival opened, I struck gold.

It was in the relative backwater of the Director's Fortnight that I stumbled on a French documentary called Benda Bilili. It opens with a middle-aged man with polio dancing on a dusty street in the Congolese city of Kinshasa.

The story then moves onto its main subject: a group of musicians that goes by the name of Staff Benda Bilili. The words "benda bilili" mean "beyond appearances"; for this band of brothers, it's a statement with profound meaning.

The group's original core is made up of three paraplegic middle-aged street-dwellers who live in cardboard boxes in this lawless city and stay sane by making music. They are joined by a 12-year-old drummer and by Roger, a 13-year-old runaway who makes music by connecting a tin can to a stick with a piece of nylon.


They are remarkable: their music, their spirit, their humour, their existence. The film is made by Renaud Barret and Florent do la Tullaye, who were unhappy in their jobs in advertising and photo-journalism before embarking on this adventure. It was while making another film about Congolese music that they happened on these musical men of the street.

benda_bilili_6.jpgThey started to befriend the elder and soul of the band, Papa Ricky; after becoming enchanted by their music, they decided to help Staff Benda Bilili make a recording. At the time, they had no idea that this commitment would take five years, or that it would change the lives of all of those involved.

Early in the making of the movie, band member Coco Yakala mused: "One day, we will be the most famous disabled men in all of Africa." It turned out to be a prescient but parochial vision. When the album, Tres Tres Fort, was eventually released in 2009, it precipitated a European tour which was attended by sell-out crowds and which elicited some truly wonderful footage.

benda_bilili_9.jpgI don't want to spoil any part of this documentary, but to give a sense of the musicians' take on life, I'll point to one sequence when the band is relaxing after a show in Denmark. They're knocking back some whisky but start to hanker after some weed. They discuss how disapproving Western society is of such behaviour and that they would inevitably end up in lots of trouble. They look at the alarm sensors in the corner of the room and recognise them as specially-designed, high-powered, super-sensitive marijuana detectors. This observation results in them sticking to the whisky - while rolling a sizeable joint.

Not surprisingly, the entire cinema audience rose for a standing ovation. Something you too can do if you choose when the band plays at Glastonbury.

There are bound to be parallels between this film and the Ry-Cooder-inspired, Wim-Wenders-directed 1999 documentary, Buena Vista Social Club. There are similarities, but the difference with this story is that if it weren't true, it would be unbelievable.



  • Comment number 1.

    Can't wait to see this as I really love their music and story. Any idea of when it will be released and whether it will be in the Cinema or straight to DVD?

  • Comment number 2.

    Sounds like my cup of tea.

    They're also scheduled to play WOMAD UK this summer.

  • Comment number 3.

    I've never been but that Glastonbury line up scares me to death just reading it. A mixture of meaningless names and bands I thought had a long time ago been put mercifully to sleep.

    Enjoying it must be like trying to order from your usual tandoori menu: so many pages to select from but they all look and tastes the same in reality. Womad, by contrast, is more like your michelin star bijou restaurant, albeit with Rolf Harris pudding for the kids.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Staff Benda Bilili is great indeed ! if you wish to get yourself a guitar of the Kinshasa based guitar maker Socklo (the same as the ones Staff performs on), you can order one on the website of Music Fund, a Belgian NGO (started by the music ensemble Ictus and Oxfam Belgium) which is actively working in partnership with the music schools of Kinshasa, donating them instruments and training repair-technicians of music instruments. the special action in support of Socklo aims to help him invest in his workshop, so that he can develop it into something economically more viable. see the videos on the website and/or facebook of Music Fund.


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