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.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past