Photojournalist Daniel McCabe first went to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, to cover a series of armed rebellions that were tearing the country’s eastern regions apart.
A chance encounter with a young, charismatic and potentially dangerous major in the Congolese national army led to an epic story of the people caught up in Congo’s ongoing violence. McCabe switched his camera settings to video, and produced what is now the full-length documentary This is Congo, which had its U.S. premier at Doc NYC in New York City on Nov. 12.
McCabe, who describes Congo as “Narnia on acid,” spoke with TIME about the nation’s distinctive difficulties, meeting the film’s hero and what lies ahead for Congo as its president continues to delay the end of his reign.
TIME: Why Congo?
McCabe: Congo is this incredibly special place, full of contrasts: Beauty and horror, hope and despair. The more I started to learn about it, the more I realized how unique Congo was in both its problems and its qualities. So I wanted to be able to tell the real story of Congo, with all its complexities. I wanted people to walk away having a degree more understanding of what’s happening so they don’t just flip the channel next time news flares up.
Your film takes place during the M23 rebellion, but it flashes back to Congo’s colonial and Cold War history. What point are you trying to make?
While on one hand [the situation in Congo today] has so much to do with its history, on the other hand it’s a modern day story of the corruption of man and the banality of war. You have this country that’s been sliced up to suit Western powers. They’re in Berlin, carving Africa up without any regard for the ethnic groups, only about the resources that can be extracted. And that has repercussions today. This film represents a more general understanding of what happens when we start manipulating countries and we—and I mean the proverbial we—create these shadow wars to further our own needs.
How did you meet your main character, Colonel Mamadou Ndala, whose trajectory towards national hero becomes the backbone of your story?
We were out filming the rebels, and Mamadou’s unit arrested us when we were crossing back over the front lines. We were brought back to their base, and we’re waiting for our fates to be passed down by the commanding officer, who’ll soon come in the room. In my mind I’m like, Oh man, if they look on my memory card [and see footage of the rebels]… oh f–k. And then the officer [Mamadou] comes in, and it turns out he and my fixer are old boarding-school friends from when they were seven years old. So we ended up staying on that base for a week just hanging out, not even filming. At the time, Mamadou was just a low-level officer. But over the course of the next few years, he kept getting promoted, and by the time he gets lead command position for [the city of Goma, at the peak of the war in 2012], I’m inside the unit.
A lot of your footage is taken right from the front lines with the national army. Were you ever concerned for your safety?
Totally. But when all of a sudden there is access to the front lines, which I had been chasing for a year and a half, and the guys are like, Dude, are you on the truck or are you off? there is no way I wouldn’t go. When I watch it now, I’m definitely like, Oh, shouldn’t have done that. Call it stupidity or bravado, but it was thrilling too. It’s like looking at the sun: you know it’s so bad but there is that part of that says, Oh yeah, I’m going to look.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila has just postponed elections again, until end of 2018 — two years after the official end of his term. Already we are seeing sporadic uprisings. What does your experience filming the M23 rebellion in 2012 tell you about what’s in store for Congo?
Well, it tells me that the major issue facing Congo is still internal corruption. And after that, you still have armed groups, and you still have infrastructure and education issues — all of which combine to make an impossible scenario. My suspicion is that there will be another eastern conflict, and the government simply won’t be able to get the elections going, which will give Kabila enough time to figure out what to do with his hundreds of different businesses and how to avoid criminal charges while holding onto the billions of dollars he’s stolen.
So what do we need for Congo to find peace? We need the government to no longer be corrupt, and we need armed groups to go away. Then we need to build infrastructure, and make it so people don’t die from an infected tooth or a mosquito bite. Congo needs to get to that place, but the real lynchpin is that the Congolese need to do it themselves. If we go in there with our humanitarian groups and the United Nations and our electoral officials to create peace for them, it will never last. That was what was so special about Mamadou: all of a sudden, there was this guy that people could feel proud of and they could get behind him. The power of Mamadou was patriotism.