Système K (2019) REVIEW | Berlinale 2019

"With subject matter this good, all a decent documentarian has to do is point the camera and press record."

Système K
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A revolutionary group of artists take their work to the streets in Système K, a fascinating portrait of modern Kinshasa that doubles up as an meditation on the political purpose of art. A direct testament to the power of resistance through imagination, it soars thanks to the immense creativity and spectacle of the work on offer.

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo and home to more than eleven million people, is in dire need of help. Electricity shortages are a common recurrence. Clean water is expensive and hard to come by. Waste is strewn across the street. Cars navigate the roads that are usually seen on rain-soaked mountains. The wider country is ravaged by civil war and endless corruption, with no solution in sight.

The people are poor, especially artists, who have no galleries to exhibit their work in. Yet the lively city is filled with opportunity. Raw materials can be found on the ground and the streets provide the perfect space for exhibition. We are told that everybody performs in the bustling Kinshasa, a city bursting with vitality and life. Street-art becomes a very extension of that vitality, as natural to these artists as breathing or walking.

Their work — all of which performs, either literally or through its presentation — is fascinating. Freddy Tsimba repurposes the tools of war into provocative designs: dense sculptures with bullet casings, or houses made out of machetes. Géraldine Tobe paints with a candle, using fire to create ash-based work, often reflecting on the decay of modern society. Another dresses up as an astronaut, suggesting utopian opportunity, while another covers himself in sachets of water, drawing attention to the lack of basic needs people in Kinshasa face. The diversity is staggering, making Kinshasa a global hub for African art, and an inspiration to artists anywhere.

While their art is specific, their approach is truly universal; providing a template for how to promote your art in the world. You do not need validation from anyone higher up to be an artist, all you have to do is make sure as many eyeballs as possible can see it. Sculpture and portraiture need not be relegated to white space galleries, but should be open to all people. The best thing artists can do is take their work into the public space, making art a necessary tool for political dialogue. In this sense they resemble Russian provocateurs Voina, whose similarly bizarre street-art directly confronts issues affecting everyday people, or the artists in Burkinabè Rising, a similar film about artistic revolutionaries in Burkina Faso.

While expensive modern art becomes more and more abstract and unrelated to human life, the art in Système K is vital and provocative, bleeding with personal experience. We learn about the witch trials, where children suspected of possessing magical powers were violently exorcised against their will. Another man is hounded by the police after his performance, leading him to flee the city. To be an artist in Kinshasa is to be truly brave, making their work feel even more precious.

While the documentary approach is nothing special — give or take a few ambitious drone shots — Système K really allows these people to speak for themselves. It all culminates in a blood-spattered spectacle that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jodorowsky movie. With subject matter this good, all a decent documentarian has to do is point the camera and press record.