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Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 Interview – “Kinshasa Symphony” co-director Martin Baer

Kinshasa Symphony - At VIFF 2010
by Jason Whyte

“Kinshasa Symphony” is a film about Central Africa's only Symphony Orchestra: the “Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste”. It is a film about Kinshasa, capital of the Congo, home to 9 million people. A film about the daily life of six of them. A film about music.” Co-director Martin Baer (who directed with Claus Wischmann) on the film “Kinshasa Symphony” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

This is our first film at VIFF, our first screening in Canada! “Kinshasa Symphony” had its premiere at Berlin Film Festival in February 2010, and it won awards at several European and Asian film festivals. Both of us would love to come to Vancouver to discuss the film, but only one of us can make it.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

My co-director, Claus, is a musician himself and wrote and directed several music documentaries. When he heard about a Congolese symphony orchestra, he called me because he knew about my interest in Africa. I had not been to the Congo until then, but I had shot and directed several films in Africa. What I told Claus was something like “No way, there cannot be anything like a symphony orchestra in one of the poorest countries on the continent!” When we went there to find out, I was proven wrong. Kinshasa IS home to an amazing orchestra, and Claus and I found the most exciting story to tell in a film, and we decided that it would be great to combine our strengths. Claus knows a lot about Beethoven, and I know something about Africa.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

This is going to be embarrassing. But true. “... lawyer.” The idea, when I was twelve, was “fight for justice.”

How did this project come to fruition?

When I first came to Africa as a high school graduate on his trip to discover the world - I rode my bicycle from Berlin to Damascus and continued by bus and on foot - I was amazed, and shocked. The shock was not about the poverty; it was about racism and the fact that I was part of the problem, regardless of good intentions. It was enough to come from the white, rich world to feel an insurmountable distance to the Africans whom I wanted to befriend. After six months in Central Africa, I went back to Europe and vowed to go back to Africa only if I had something useful to contribute. This is why I made films about Germany's colonial history, about racist stereotypes in films, about African politics. When Claus came up with the idea of making a film about Congolese musicians, I was thrilled; a story about the courage of people, a film about the beauty and the power of life and music.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

As the cinematographer, I was very nervous about the challenge to film an orchestra with only one camera. Fortunately a second cameraman, Michael Dreyer, came for the filming of the concert. Shooting on HD without an assistant is a challenge. Light is a difficult thing in Africa, with a whitish, very bright sky, and no lighting equipment to speak of. Hearing all my colleagues tell me about the near-impossibility to film in the streets of Kinshasa, the truth is I was afraid. And I was very relieved, and happy, when we looked at the first test print in the lab and the lab people were all excited about the colors and that you can actually distinguish the faces in the darkness of the rehearsal hall.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Because of everything we had heard about the difficulties to film in the crowded streets of Kinshasa, we thought about shooting on a small HDV camera. But I do not like to “steal” my images, as in to film from a moving car, or to hide the camera. We cannot do that anyway, because even our small team was very visible wherever we went. It is rare to see two white people in Kinshasa's townships. So we packed a XD-Camcorder, extra lenses, the heavier tripod, and Pascal Capitolin shouldered all the stuff he needed to record every sound in Dolby Surround. It was a lot to carry around, but it was worth it. The three of us wanted to film this African orchestra just as we film the Berlin Philharmonics; even though we could not get the 10-camera-OB-van we would have liked for the concert recording.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

My favourite question in all question and answer sessions is “Why do Africans play Beethoven?” This is exactly what we kept asking our protagonists for most of the 8 week shooting, only we never got an answer. We wanted to know why Emery, who translated our French to Lingala, used the phrase “question europeene” quite a lot. Some of our questions were “European questions”, and that needed to be explained to our interviewees. Eventually, the musicians began to explain to us, that it is a strange concept to see Beethoven as “European” and imply that his music would be “ours”. In the film, you see Heritier, the violinist, and he talks about “African rhythms in Beethoven's music”. Good point. Would we ask Lang Lang, or other musicians from China, why they play Mozart? Why ask Africans?

Another great thing after the first screenings is that audiences offer to donate music instruments to the orchestra. We have brought many instruments to Kinshasa; last time when we had the Congolese premiere for the orchestra we could bring them a trombone.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?[

I would love to be in academics. It would be history, I think.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Velcrow Ripper. Although I haven’t seen “Fierce Light” yet, I was deeply impressed by “The Corporation”. (Author’s note: Velcrow was involved in the technical aspects, including sound design and music, with the film.)

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

How do we make our decision which book to read, which film to watch, which CD to buy? I read reviews. There is so much on offer. I want the critics' opinion to help me make a pre-selection. I see this approach as a way to counter-balance the effect of advertisement. So I find the media response to film very important.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

One of those wonderful, old, large palace-style movie theatres in Cairo, Egypt, where I had a great time watching “Mad Max” just after it had come out.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

Go and see something you have never seen before. Guaranteed.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

New thing and a new world to me, the festival circuit, so I cant really answer this question.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

“Brazil”. The funniest and saddest film I’ve seen.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’10 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff10 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/15/10 09:34:04
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