When two aspiring French film-makers stumbled upon a band of ageing paraplegic buskers in downtown Kinshasa in 2004, it was not immediately obvious that they would go on to storm the Cannes Film Festival together six years later.
Even a year and a half ago the musicians, who became the subjects of Benda Bilili!, the documentary by Renaud Barret and his friend of 20 years, Florent de la Tullaye, were still sleeping rough on cardboard boxes on the streets of the Congolese capital and rehearsing in the city’s forlorn and crumbling zoo.
Now, in a triumph more unlikely than most of the fictional storylines on offer at Cannes this year, the band are the grinning face of the of the world’s most glamorous entertainment industry jamboree, which ended last week.
“It is a crazy story,” Barret says, shaking his head in breathless disbelief. “It’s like a miracle.”
Six years ago, Barret ran a small Parisian advertising agency and De la Tullaye was a photojournalist. Both were fed up with their jobs and looking for a new direction. So they went to Kinshasa together to make a television documentary on the music scene there.
One night they discovered the band members of Staff Benda Bilili (the name means “Staff Beyond Appearances”) playing blues on the pavement for coins from the pockets of expats. It was a surreal encounter that would change all their lives.
“They were begging outside a fancy restaurant,” Barret says. “They were on these Mad Max or Easy Rider style bicycle wheelchairs with all these street kids around them, listening to the music as if it was a cure that could give them strength.”
The filmmakers’ first thought was to try to help finance a record. “We didn’t mean to make a movie,” Barret admits. “We only started to shoot them to get images for marketing the record but after two years we realised that we had something amazing.”
With hindsight you wonder why they hadn’t noticed earlier. Staff Benda Bilili are a scriptwriter’s dream, particularly the two lead characters picked out in the film.
Leon “Ricky” Likabu, the band leader, comes across as the archetypal wise elder of the group.
Roger Landu, the teenage prodigy who performs on a sort of home-made, single-string guitar fashioned from a tin can, grows on screen from a shy street kid into a confident young man with a nice line in Jimi Hendrix-style stage theatrics.
As the film shows, however, making the record proved to be an epic struggle, as might be expected in one of Africa’s most chaotic and dangerous cities.
The directors’ money ran out and they had to return to France. The shelter for the disabled where many of the band lived burnt down, ejecting them and their families onto the streets. Landu was forced to return to his village to look after his mother.
“Our problem was that they could all die, just like that, even the younger ones. That’s the problem with Kinshasa,” Barret says.
Somehow though, at the third attempt, they cut the record. When Très, Très Fort finally made it into record stores last year the band’s music and their exotic backstory prompted immediate interest from Europe, leading to a tour that provides many of the film’s funniest moments.
Today Staff Benda Bilili are preparing to play Womad and Glastonbury festivals, while back home they have all bought houses and can afford to send their numerous children to school.
The film is now set to take their extraordinary story to a much wider audience. At the start of the Cannes festival, one reviewer was listening to the role-call of films on offer and paused at an unfamiliar title.
“Bender Bellini? Is that a porno?” the critic asked.
Now everybody in Cannes seems to know about it. The band has been playing free concerts and impromptu gigs around the town for the past five days.
From the moment that it received a rare standing ovation at its first press screening on Thursday, Benda Bilili! has possessed that most elusive and precious of industry commodities: buzz.
Screenings throughout the weekend were packed, joyous affairs and critics have predicted that the film will become a firm favourite.
Bidding wars are in progress for the distribution rights for the US, the UK, Germany and a host of smaller territories. Deals have already been struck for France and Japan.
After the official premiere two weeks ago at the opening of the Director’s Fortnight section of the festival, the band received a five-minute standing ovation.
Half an hour later they were performing on stage at a crammed after-screening party on the beach in front of the two most prestigious hotels in Cannes: Landu and eight middle-aged men, four in wheelchairs, one on crutches, most in dapper panama hats, tearing into an ecstatically received live set while fireworks burst overhead.
They looked utterly unfazed by the occasion.
“It’s normal,” Likabu said. “It’s great but we worked hard for this. It’s because of that that we are in Cannes.”
From the very start, Barret says, the band were convinced that they were on a fast track to superstardom.
“In 2004 Coco [one of the guitarist vocalists] told us: ‘We are going to be the most famous African band in the world.’ We were like, ‘Yeah sure, man.”
But they said: ‘We are going to work with you. With you we will do something great.’ So we started to believe it even though it was not really rational. They gave us the strength and power and energy.”
The music, a raw blend of traditional Congolese soukous, reggae and elements of James Brown-style funk, is only a small part of the film’s appeal.
Mostly, it is the story of the band’s indomitable desire to make more of themselves, their refusal to give up their dreams in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. On the lawless streets of Kinshasa, the band’s survival is surprising enough.
As handicapped men on the margins of a society that does little to support them, it is just short of astonishing. They must be tightly disciplined and well organised just to get through the day, which they can only do with the help of a network of street kids who help them to get around.
Now all the band’s dreams are coming true. Near the end of the film they are seen huddled in an Oslo hotel room in winter, passing round a joint.
“Nobody believed in us,” Likabu reflects. “Now they can see they were wrong.” It is a classic underdog-come-good cinema moment.For their part, the two film-makers are looking to the future, too. “Staff Benda Bilili is over for us,” Bennet says, wearily but sadly. “They’ve got their own story to live now.”
He is not sure if he and De la Tullaye can ever repeat the emotional high of their six-year attachment to the band, but they have already lined up another act for the next project at the recording studio they have set up in Kinshasa on the back of Staff Bena Bilili’s success.
Once again, it sounds an unlikely proposition. “Our next band is Jupiter,” he says with a broad smile. “They play heavy Congolese metal.”
Courtesy: The Times