The lasting image in Renzo Martens’ documentary-style film, set in the Congo, is a neon sign saying “ENJOY please POVERTY” that he sets up in a remote Congolese village. As the Dutch artist starts the portable generator and the letters light up, the children look on in delight, and the parents are happy that a little joy has been brought into their children’s lives. It is quite clearly the event of their year, if not their lifetime.
But the message it carries is a stark one: be resigned to your life of poverty and don’t believe in the hope offered by western charity workers, you have been poor for decades and in reality this probably won’t change, be satisfied with your lot, enjoy your poverty.
This uneasy pairing of, on the one hand, seeming to want to better the Congolese people’s lives and, on the other, concluding that there is no hope of a better life for them runs throughout the film. It makes uncomfortable viewing as you wonder what Martens’ true intentions are.
The film seems to mock the way the western world exploits the poverty in Africa: the white journalists and photographers seeking the worst atrocities so they can sell their ‘story’ to the western media, the United Nations peacekeepers keeping designated areas safe so that overseas companies can fly in and out to search for gold, the western palm oil and cocoa plantation owner whose local workers don’t earn enough to feed their children, and the NGOs who drive around in jeeps and plaster their logos on everything to increase visibility and help secure more funding.
Martens travels around the Congo describing this situation to the Congolese people, telling them how their poverty is a resource that the west exploits to make money, little of which is returned to those in need, and to make themselves feel good. But isn’t Martens complicit in this too?
At one point, Martens sets up a makeshift classroom where he puts basic calculations up on a board to illustrate to local men how photographing malnourished children and raped women and selling these photos to foreign media would bring them more money than taking pictures of weddings and celebrations. They set out to put the theory into practice.
You sit there squirming, as these men are encouraged to point their cameras into the faces of their own suffering people and get a ‘good’ picture that will sell well. Martens and the men go to a hospital to see if the (white) Médecins sans Frontières representative would allow them to take pictures and if he’d be interested in buying their photos. The answer is no, the reason first being that it would be inappropriate, and then, when Martens points out that western photographers are permitted to do so, the reason is because the locals’ work isn’t professional enough.
Martens tells the men bluntly that their plan won’t work, they won’t be able to sell their photos and that they should go back to selling happy, wedding pictures for a pittance. You feel like Martens has used them for his own personal experiment, and then abandoned them once he has made his point and obtained his documentary material. They had put their trust in him and are left disappointed, exploited even.
It’s a contradictory film, which initially made me question the point of my monthly contributions to Médecins sans Frontières and by the end had me questioning what Martens really hoped to achieve with his documentary.
The film is showing at the KVS in Brussels until May 10 as part of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.
(Photo credit: © Renzo Martens)