The Mindful Bard
Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World
Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
Film: Benda Bilili! (official website) (National Geographic Entertainment)
Genre: Documentary, Art House
Cast: Coco, Roger, Ricky, Theo
Writers/Directors: Florent de la Tullaye, Renaud Barret
“Not only do physically disabled people have experiences which are not available to the able-bodied, they are in a better position to transcend cultural mythologies about the body, because they cannot do things the able-bodied feel they must do in order to be happy, ‘normal,’ and sane . . . If disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place.”
Looking Beyond—in Amazement
A group of homeless Congolese boys sits on a grassy slope near a stream, reading what looks like a Jehovah’s Witness brochure. One boy is holding forth on the subject of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, explaining to the others the story the pictures illustrate. Suddenly he announces with authority: “I was here before they ate the fruit. It was wonderful. You’d eat and the next day you wouldn’t be hungry.”
An old soul, he’s internalized the myth and embedded it in his own experience of life as a street kid in Kinshasa. In this way he echoes the artist’s sense of having emerged from an ideal world into a reality which falls far short. This is the famous existential disappointment that goads the artist into creating something of beauty to make the post-temptation Garden inhabitable.
But for some the first order of the day is survival, and one way these street kids survive is by pushing the four disabled (from polio) Benda Bilili musicians around on their homemade tricycles—a job for which they’re rewarded with money, food, and good counsel. The kids come to see the musicians as patrons in turn, albeit with limited capacity to provide.
In order for the members of this mishmash street family to keep on and pursue their spare hopes they must engage in continual mutual encouragement and exhortation, pushing each other to rise from want and hopelessness. They’re not permitted to be prima donnas—it’s simply not an option, and they can’t afford to indulge in the intellectual luxuries, like angst and ennui, for which rich and bourgeois artists are notorious.
Barret and Tulaye came to Africa to look for music to document and were coming up dry. So they were ecstatic when they discovered this group of excellent players who were only too glad to record an album and document their lives on film.
The shelter where the band members live with their families and many other people with disabilities burns down while they’re all in the studio, forcing recording of their first album to a halt. Watching how these heroes rise above it all while creating superlative sounds is breathtaking. You’ll never again complain about lack of government funding for the arts.
Great visuals capture an authentic, joyous warmth in the midst of human cruelty and selfishness. The music is an exciting and original blend of African and world genres, including reggae.
Optimism can seem trite, but when Ricky sings “Nobody is ever doomed” from his handmade tricycle, surrounded by homeless children setting up their cardboard sleeping mats, you really have to believe him.
Benda Bilili! fulfills eight of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 3) it harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda; 4) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; 5) it is about attainment of the true self; 6) it inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation; 7) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; and 8) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.
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