Film: The liar king of Zaire

Lethal Weapon IV is most South Africans' idea of a good night out. So why are they fighting to see a documentary about a dead president? By Alex Duval Smith

Mobutu Sese Seko would probably have sold his mother had he ever been short of cash. He never did because he never was. Besides, as Thierry Michel's extraordinary documentary film reveals, there is no need to turn to the imaginary to be gob-smacked by Mobutu: King of Zaire. This two- hour film, now playing in packed cinemas in Africa and continental Europe, is testament to the old adage that fact is better than fiction.

Marshall Mobutu married a woman who had an identical twin. He had an affair with this twin, and would take the sisters to banquets (he'd sit with one on each side). In his 32-year reign he virtually made it a policy to control ministers by seducing their wives. He wasn't interested in building roads. He flew everywhere - he didn't need them. He also gave poverty-stricken Zaire its own, laughable, space programme.

None of this affected his international reputation. Criss-crossing the globe in his leopard-skin hat, Mobutu was feted by all - the Queen, successive French presidents, Chairman Mao, and his "best friend'' George Bush.

London Film Festival audiences took a brief look at the English-language version of Michel's documentary, but no distributor snapped it up. So it's been left to become a cinema hit in less formulistic markets such as France, Belgium and several West African countries. A measure of Britain's loss is that South Africa - a try-out market for many feature films - has lapped it up, despite the country's general lack of interest in the rest of the continent and its appetite for blockbusters.

To Michel, a 47-year-old Belgian who works by day as a lecturer in film, the late dictator of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) is a character worthy of Shakespeare. "He was a consummate actor, a natural Machiavellian manipulator who, like Richard III, arrived at the pinnacle of power through a combination of violence and seduction."

Mobutu, the son of a cook and a sergeant in the Belgian Congo colonial forces, was a school drop-out, but learned to type as an army clerk. It was a logical step to become a journalist, then information officer for Patrice Lumumba, leader of the country after independence in 1960. Among the ragtag post-independence team, the young Mobutu was the only person with any military experience and so he became head of the armed forces. Cue for a coup.

With a little help from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the left- wing Lumumba was consigned to history in 1965, paving the way for 32 years of cruelty and excess, supported by a communist- obsessed western world which was prepared to put up with anything in the name of strategic mineral resources. Mobutu's clever little mantra was, "it's me or chaos''.

The lavish party ended on 17 May 1997 when, the Cold War over, the West had lost interest in Africa and Laurent-Desire Kabila swept into Kinshasa with his rebels. Mobutu died of cancer and was buried amid indifference and contempt in Rabat, Morocco.

Rather than include every news event of Mobutu's reign, Michel has zeroed in on revealing moments - of posture, decor, silences and even tears. We watch a declining Mobutu tell a 1994 political convention of the unfortunate need to move towards a multi-party system, crying the tears of a disbelieving child who has lost his teddy bear. We also meet his former associates, including an unwittingly hilarious propaganda minister.

"The first cut was 16 hours long,'' says Michel, whose editing mastery rivals his doggedness as a researcher. "I tracked down the WTN cameraman who filmed Mobutu's reaction to Kabila's advance. We went through all the frames that were cut from the news reports - the looks, the sideward glances, the tears - and put the film back together.''

Michel spent a year in film libraries in France, Belgium and Washington DC as well as in the archives of TV Congo, of the country's security services and at the presidency. "I found footage, such as the shots of Mobutu's luxury palace at Gbadolite, which could never have been shown to the pauperised people of Zaire. Luckily, Mobutu was so image-conscious he had many aspects of his life filmed."

Mobutu: King of Zaire has been running in Belgium since May and is currently showing across France. In Johannesburg its cinema run was extended for two weeks and it is on, or about to open, in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo and Benin. The Congo censors have not approved it - perhaps fearful that, with President Kabila now fighting a rebellion of his own, it might encourage sentimentalism for Mobutism among the country's film-going middle class.

There are many ways to take the film. One is as a portrait of a brilliant deceiver who had the West eating out of his hand. Another is as a biography of a despot who wanted to be king and got away with it. But, by impassively lining up the facts, Michel has dethroned Mobutu and all the hypocrites who backed his reign.

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