Muhammad Ali and George Foreman once fought there, but now, the stadium in Kinshasa plays host to female boxers-in-training. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to French film maker Renaud Barret about his new film documenting the lives of the boxing Congolese women.
Good memories are in short supply in Kinshasa. But if there is one thing people there remember with fondness, it is the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the legendary 1974 battle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
But the “Rumble” isn’t just history. It turns out that the stadium where the two fought still plays host to a boxing gym. Not only that, but a number of Congolese women also train there, punching away among their male colleagues.
French film makers and music producers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye documented the stories of these women boxers in a new documentary “Victoire Terminus, Kinshasa,” which premiered at this year’s. SPIEGEL ONLINE caught up with Barret in Berlin and spoke with him about the difficulties involved with making the film, the women’s struggle for survival, and why boxing is still so important in Kinshasa.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you decide to make the film in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Renaud Barret: We went to the capital Kinshasa — the first time was in 2004 — and we fell in love with city. We made a first film, “Jupiter’s Dance,” about street musicians in the ghetto. So we stayed in the ghetto for two years making friends and making connections, meeting people.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where did you get the idea to make a film about boxing in the city?
Barret: We realized that there was a particular culture of the body and being strong. It comes from the tribe but it also comes from Muhammad Ali, who came to Kinshasa for the famous fight, the “Rumble in the Jungle.” It has left a footprint. Everybody knows about this match, and it was the only time in the history of that country that something positive remained. Otherwise people speak about war, bribery, poverty, death. But this particular fight and the old stadium is like the only African monument with a positive image.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And a culture of boxing was left behind by the fight?
Barret: One day we realized that there was a boxing club underneath the stadium, and that there were women fighting amongst all these men. So we wanted to do a movie about boxing, and we wanted to do a movie about the country. There is a link between the country and boxing, and we met those girls and we decided to do a movie about them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did they immediately agree to do the film?
Barret: We got to know them little by little, because they were pretty distrustful. They didn’t want us to come into their world at first; they said, “Who are you, white boy? You come here shooting my misery?” We speak Lingala, so at first they don’t want to talk to you. But little by little you gain their trust.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Even if you do manage to gain their trust, it doesn’t seem like Kinshasa would be the easiest place to shoot a film?
Barret: It was extremely difficult to shoot in that particular place because you’ve got the authorities all around — police, secret service. But all those people have been unpaid for years. So what they do is they hijack the population; to get some money, they become like mobsters. And we were white and we had cameras. So every day was a burden, with the militia, the cops. The whole country works like that, so you accept it and deal with it — or you just leave.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you decide to shoot during the 2006 elections in Congo?
Barret: For three years we had heard people talking about this election. Is it going to happen? When is it going to happen? We decided it would be a wonderful background for the story. We didn’t want to make theories; we just do our thing.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But it was probably an important part of people’s lives there?
Barret: Yes, it influenced everything people did.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the women says she is boxing because she doesn’t want to be a prostitute. She’s doing this to survive. But they didn’t seem to make any money from boxing. Can they survive from it?
Barret: No, because the male boxing doesn’t even work. Everything is ruined, there is no federation, no league, nothing. It’s just people struggling to do something. And when you see the coach, Judex, it’s his dream to do that. He does everything himself, with no help. He steals money from the women in the marketplace! It is hopeless, but yet it’s full of hope.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But why do these women box then?
Barret: It’s not that they are struggling in the macho society. OK, they get beaten, they’ve got scars everywhere, but they don’t judge men. They say if men had a job, they would be better. They are so generous in their approach to this problem. They are not talking about fighting for their rights. This doesn’t exist in a Bantu society.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is no feminism there?
Barret: There is, but they are feminists just being what they are. But they don’t think about their rights, and they never fight back — only if they are threatened with rape or something. But if their men hit them, they won’t say anything. That’s Bantu society. We were amazed because we thought we were going to do a feminist movie; everyone was expecting that with women boxing. But it didn’t turn out that way. In the end, we show them as they are. And in the end, there’s no future for women boxing there.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But why do they still do it?
Barret: Some say to stay in good shape. Because if you are weak, physically weak, you die. If you sell things in the marketplace in dust and dirt and you wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and have three kids, your husband’s not working, then at 30 the women look 50. But those girls have chosen to stay fit.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How old are they?
Barret: Between 18 and 24 years old. Some of them had children at the age of 12. They say, “Oh, I shouldn’t have another one, but I’m going to have it.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is this why the coach tells them to stay away from men?
Barret: Yes, but they don’t. They can’t!
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The first scene — when one of the women is running through the streets of Kinshasa — was very reminiscent of the scene in the Michael Mann’s film “Ali,” when Muhammad Ali is running through the same streets. Was that deliberate?
Barret: Yes. In the 1970s everything was poor, but still pretty, while now everything is run down.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It can also be seen as something of a political statement, can’t it?
Barret: It was the great problem — especially for our subjects. We had to ask ourselves what were we going to show, because they talked about politics a lot. But we had to protect them. We didn’t want to put them in danger. It’s a question of ethics, of our responsibility. So we cut a lot.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you plan to do another film there?
Barret: Yes, we are planning to do another movie, and it is going to be about women again. It’s about a theater troupe, made up of female prostitutes from the street. And we are also recording new artists and making a film about a group of people with disabilities who live on the street and play the blues — and they are drug dealers and really funny!
Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International: