Milo Rau, Truth and Justice: The Congo Tribunal — Pierre Dessureault

[Summer 2019]

Milo Rau, Le tribunal sur le Congo, 2017, documentaire / documentary, images tirées du film / film stills, 100 min.

Milo Rau, Le tribunal sur le Congo, 2017, documentaire / documentary, images tirées du film / film stills, 100 min.

By Pierre Dessureault

“Truth may not be the goal,
but it may be the way.”1

The Congo Tribunal, documentary film by Milo Rau, a German–Swiss co-production (2017), was presented as part of the exhibition L’imaginaire radical: le contrat social at VOX September 13 to December 15, 2018.

The International Institute of Political Murder was created in 2007 by Swiss director, artist, and filmmaker Milo Rau. Since then, Rau has produced more than fifty plays, films, performances, and video installations on social and political realities, most of them complex and controversial. Among his topics have been the execu-tion of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, the Rwandan genocide, the Utøya massacre perpetrated by Norwegian Anders Breivik, the affair of the Belgian pedophile Marc Dutroux, the homophobic murder of a young Belgian man, the Moscow trial of Pussy Riot, and the fate of migrants in Europe. Rau’s work is based on a transdisciplinary and collective approach based on in-depth research. For each of his projects, he elicits the participation and commitment of the parties concerned; his approach, rooted in tangible situations, takes them on a reflective journey that culminates in a reality richly elucidated by the multiple points of view to which the performance gives shape.

“If I had to choose only one of my theatre or film projects, it would be ‘The Congo Tribunal,’” said Rau. “The film gathered all my interests and formats which have driven me over the last fifteen years. It is a theatrical tribunal, but everything is real: miners, rebels, the cynical minister and the lawyer from Den Hague – they play nothing other than themselves. At the same time, the film creates something that is actually not documentarily realizable: A portrait of the world economy, a very concrete analysis of all causes and backgrounds that lead to a civil war in Congo that did not stop for more than twenty years. And who is interested in the fact, that this situation remains.2 This tribunal of opinion, with no legal value but with considerable symbolic weight, modelled on the tribunal instituted by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1966 to de-nounce the American intervention in Vietnam, was held in May and June 2015 in Berlin and in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was chaired by Jean-Louis Gilissen, a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. During the six days of hearings, sixty witnesses and experts, representing all parties concerned, were heard. More than a thousand people attended the sessions.

The film is divided into three chapters, preceded by an introduction in which Rau talks about the project and the situation in the Congo, torn by a civil war that has caused more than six million deaths, most of them civilians. In his opening speech, Rau stated his position and claimed his commitment as the creator of the tribunal: “By taking the side of the dispossessed, the mistreated, those who we say have no one to lobby on their behalf, we want to have the voices of rural communities, Congolese citizens, simple miners and simple shop owners heard and listened to. They are the voices of millions of men, women, and children who belong to what we call civil society and who have always been faced with the blind and pitiless efficiency of the globalized economy.”3

The first chapter, “The Riches of the Earth,” describes the mining wealth of the country, pillaged by multinationals for their own profit, especially one called Banro, whose activities left abuse and dis-placement of populations in their wake. The Congolese activist and expert Peter Mugisho Matabishi testified to the tribunal, “Putting a population in a situation in which they no longer have access to drinking water, healthcare, and food is already a way of exterminating them.”4

The second chapter, “The Road to Civil War,” paints a portrait of the collusion between public authorities and the mining companies, which, with total impunity and the army turning a blind eye, stir up ethnic rivalries to ensure their hold on the mineral assets in order to keep the energy flowing to the former colonial powers to the detriment of small operators.

“The Lords of the World,” the third chapter, brings to light the massacre of thirty women and children in the village of Mutarule, with the indifference, even complicity, of the rebel militia, the Congolese police, and the powerless UN forces (MONUSCO), all of which pleaded that it wasn’t their responsibility. This last chapter exposes the silence of the international community and the ambiguous positions of the World Bank and the European Union.

The film concludes with Rau’s remarks; he reiterates the “symbolic” nature of the tribunal, whose goal was to “let the truth, and nothing but the truth, be heard.”

The holding of the tribunal opened a space for voices, as witnesses were called upon to relate, in turn, what they had seen and lived through from their own points of view. Their testimonies delivered unique stories arising from their personal experience. The situations that they presented anchored the events in reality and named those responsible. This was not about reducing their information to a personal and subjective narrative, but about recording the way in which these unique and irreducible experiences were inscribed both in the course of events and in the work of illumination set in motion by the public hearings. The structure of the trial linked the singular gazes borne by embodied words with the knowledge of specialists in a series of assemblings and reassemblings that established similarities and contrasts among the facts. It thus reinforced the points of view and perspectives on the events under examination, gradually letting a portrait of the situation emerge. The film thus multiplies the fractures that distance the viewer in relation to the series of events forming its narrative. The back-and-forth between theatre conventions, represented by the setting and staging of the hearings, and documentary sequences filmed in the field breaks the unity of time and place constructed by the holding of the tribunal and at the same time interrupts the linearity of the film’s narrative. The transition is particularly sudden when sequences shown on the screen of a laptop computer are inserted into the procedure of the hearings like so many exhibits submitted as evidence. Contrasting with the discipline of the fixed points of view of the cameras positioned in the tribunal hall, which alternate with general shots of the hearing and close-ups of the witnesses to capture the reactions of certain participants, the laptop shots feature sequences shot with a shoulder-held camera, particularly in crowd scenes, during which the camera operator blends in with the action and moves around constantly to examine situations more closely and embrace events as they occur.

These comings and goings in time and space, ruptures in tone, and heterogeneity of theatrical and filmic approaches refer spectators back to themselves. The bringing to light not only of facts but also of the mediation process reminds them that they are watching images, an interpretation of reality offered for their reflection. For the point here is to establish a critical distance in order to short circuit the emotion that reduces facts to the fleeting impressions, and instead to engage in a process of reflection and analysis that draws upon culture, knowledge, and experience.

In this context, there is no longer a question of objectivity in the classic sense that documentaries generally claim, presupposing the production of images via a detached and disembodied gaze, imposing upon the spectator a universally valid truth – in this case, one that would present the Congolese reality as a homogeneous and one-dimensional whole. Rather, the spectator must accept the legitimacy of an embodied gaze engaged in elucidation of the affairs of the world. It is a gaze that, opposed to the reductive formatting of the mass media news, privileges circumstantial information and highlights as exactly as possible the thickness of the real and the complexity of the sociological and historical relations that are gradually brought to light as the cases are exhibited. At the end of a journey of reflection, the spectator’s judgment is to take a position of an active change agent.

What makes Rau’s undertaking so rich is the integrity of his documentary-maker position and the responsibility that he assumes for his positions, which are occasionally challenged by his interventions in the unfurling of the film. For the images both unveil a given reality and display the intentions of those who make them. “The universality of the Congo tribunal is based, then, on the total subjectivity of its testimonies, which reveal the often cruel and inhuman experience of what economists call development. The Congo tribunal will be a tribunal that denounces, in the proper meaning of the term – that does not take the current economic and political constraints as the final standard of justice. But it will try, on the contrary, to publicly re-establish each citizen’s right to security, happiness, and freedom of expression.”5

With the holding of the tribunal and the production of his film, Rau defines a space of counter-power that draws its legitimacy from the quality of its judges and experts who represent a broad range of stakeholders and specialists, the plurality of points of view and interests that are expressed in it, and the rigour and exhaustiveness of the research presented as evidence. For, as symbolic as the holding of the hearings was, their charged evidence and the scope of the cases submitted weigh heavy in both national and international opinion, which, for the first time, becomes aware of the extent of a tragedy that usually plays out in indifference, far from cameras and the media. Thus, following the holding of the tribunal that exposed to judgment their utter inaction – even offhandedness – regarding the fate of civilian populations that they were supposed to protect, the Congolese ministers of mines and the interior were dismissed.

Continuing the approach taken during the hearings in Berlin and Bukavu, lawyer Jean-Louis Gilissen, who presided over them, and Congolese human rights lawyer Sylvestre Bisimwa, who acted as an expert, are continuing to create tribunals “in different localities in the East Congo where mass crimes have been committed in the past. Their mission is to gather plausible evidence of these crimes and to demand that the perpetrators be charged, that the words of the victims and the truth of the horrors committed finally be heard.”6 The Créons deux, trois, plusieurs tribunaux sur le Congo ! campaign was started in 2018 to fund these tribunals. Succeeding the art of explanation through film and theatre implemented by Rau in order to generate understanding of the course of events that form a hidden reality by having truth triumph is an art of intervention and citizen engagement, a process aiming to redress injustices that have too long been the rule and to re-establish the rights of populations too long dispossessed.
Translated by Käthe Roth

1 Chris Marker in the commentary to his documentary Le joli Mai (1962) (our translation).
2 Director’s statement Milo Rau:
3 (our translation).
4 (our translation).
5 www. (our translation).
6 https://doctivismen.

Pierre Dessureault is an expert in Canadian and Quebec photography. As a curator, he has organized some fifty exhibitions, published catalogues, contributed to books, and written articles on photography. Since he retired, he has devoted himself to studying international photography in a historical perspective and, returning to his early interests, philosophy and aesthetics, to exploring in greater depth the theoretical approaches that have marked the history of the medium.

[ Complete issue, in print and digital version, available here: Ciel variable 112 – COLLECTIONS REVISITED ]
[ Individual article in digital version available here: Milo Rau, Truth and Justice: The Congo Tribunal — Pierre Dessureault ]