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Congo: White King, Red Rubber and Black Death (BBC 4)

Narrator: Nick Fraser
Executive Producer for the BBC: Nick Fraser
Film Editor: Hugh Williams
Assistant Producer: Tim Altman
Date: Wednesday 4 April 2007
Time: 10.00pm

This drama documentary examines the history of Belgian colonial rule in the African region of the Congo. Using the work of Congolese historian Elika M'Bokolo the programme lists the human rights abuses committed by both King Leopold II of the Belgians and the Belgian state in their rule of the Congo. The programme takes an innovative approach to the documentary style, using mock court scenes where individuals who witnessed the brutal oppression in the Congo give testaments, as an elderly man dressed as King Leopold sits in the dock. The figure of King Leopold is effectively put on trial for his complicity in the atrocities committed. The programme also features interviews with representatives of the Belgian government, figures from the church in Belgium as well as British and Belgian historians.

The programme sets out to reveal according to its opening lines a 'cover-up of monumental proportions', and it is in this guise of an undercover investigation that the catalogue of torture and murder carried out in the Congo is highlighted. Following M'Bokolo's research in Belgium, Britain and the Congo, the programme reconstructs the events which led to the estimated deaths of nearly ten million Congolese. These events have seemingly been forgotten in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and especially Belgium, where the apparent amnesia regarding the nation's brutal colonial rule is highlighted. The profits harvested from the exploitation of the Congo is shown in the ornate public buildings erected by King Leopold, who viewed this colonial experiment as a means to bolster Belgian's position on the world stage. The national mythology in Belgium of Leopold as a father figure, demonstrated in the numerous public statues throughout the country, is seen as impeding the recognition of the crimes committed in the Congo. The programme aims to bring these crimes to the centre-stage and uses archive photographs and reconstructions to depict the terror inflicted by Belgian colonists. Reconstructed Congolese villages are burnt to the ground and the vicious punishments imposed are acted out as the documentary forces the visualisation of the crimes as a powerful counterpoint to the staid courtroom scenes.

The horrors of colonial rule in the Congo were brought to attention in Europe by the testimonies of missionaries and humanitarians. Foremost in this are the roles played by Edward Dene Morel and Roger Casement, who both alerted the world to the situation in the Congo. There is a significant danger in this documentary that this might slide into a eulogy of two white Europeans who saved the black people in the Congo. The documentary avoids such pitfalls however by alerting its audience to the complete system of oppression of the Congolese, the paranoia of the Belgian state regarding the release of reports concerning their colonial property, and importantly re-enacting the testimonies given by native Congolese to observers. Full consideration is given to these reconstructions; the figures of white Europeans such as Casement who used these testimonies to compile their reports appear from behind, only their sleeve or shoulder is visible, as stories of mutilation and murder are recounted. The lack of power for the Congolese to represent the horrors being committed by Leopold's agents is palpable. An elderly Congolese man states in the documentary, 'if you want to fight the white man where do you get the power.' In this respect the programme addresses the problem of finding a method to represent those who have been deprived of a means of expression. By choosing to represent the atrocities through the dramatised testimonies of those who witnessed it the programme exhibits an innovative approach.

The programme is careful to stress that Belgium was not the only colonial power to exploit Africa, and that the legacy of this exploitation is present in all former European colonial powers. The former colonies are also affected by this legacy as this documentary demonstrates. The Congo has been riddled with civil wars and dictatorships since gaining its independence. The Congo is still ravaged for its wealth though now for diamonds, gold and other mineral as revealed by the documentary which describes this as, 'a whole archaeology of oppression.' The memory of Leopold is still revered in Belgium and in the Congo, the Belgian exploitation of the Congo is still obscured, the Congo itself is still exploited; the programme exposes that over a hundred years later the situation is far from resolved. The programme is an original attempt at investigating a forgotten aspect of history; this creativity is demonstrated through its inventive style and its use of non-English speaking experts to recount the story. The use of subtitles for these experts does nothing to detract from this powerful and significant programme.

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