Review: We, Students!
- BERLINALE 2022: Rafiki Fariala's first feature is a warm and insightful documentary about friendship and the situation of students at the University of Bangui in the Central African Republic
With its focus on a change of generations and new voices trying to break through, it is fitting that the first film from the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2003 to arrive at a big international festival is Rafiki Fariala's documentary We, Students! [+see also:
film profile], which has just premiered in the Berlinale's Panorama. It opens with the director himself facing the camera in a close-up shot and singing a cappella a song about the impossibility of changing old structures and the disenfranchisement of the youth. Such songs are the only music score to the film, and they work surprisingly well.
Studying Economics at the University of Bangui, Fariala initially aimed to tell a story of the corruption ingrained in the system, the incompetence of professors, the sexual harassment of girls (which the lecturers hardly even try to hide – they are quoted as having a habit of saying, “The female students are for us, go and get your girlfriends from high school”) and the squalid living conditions on campus. But even though the film deals with all of these topics, another story has emerged as a central one: that of the friendship between the director and three other boys, Aaron, Nestor and Benjamin.
Nestor is the one who steals the filmmaker's heart. The most curious and outgoing of the students, he likes to enter into animated discussions with professors on economic growth, the lack of opportunities for the youth, capitalism and communism. So it comes as an ugly surprise when the three others pass the final exam and he fails. Shaken by this, Nestor questions himself but also his friends' motivations. In a confrontational scene, he accuses Rafiki of exploiting him as a character for the film instead of being a friend.
But what is implied is that Nestor might have been failed because he is popular with girls and helps them study. Sex is another key point of the film: all of the protagonists are shown with their girlfriends, discussing love affairs or abortion. Aaron even gets accused of rape by the aunt of his girlfriend, which the girl refutes in a scene in the police station (for which, according to Rafiki, he had to pay the officers to allow him to film). So the two end up raising twin daughters – and her family still requires “compensation for rape” in the form of one goat and six chickens.
It is hard to film in CAR, as people are not used to cameras, and Fariala was arrested three times. At the university, lecturers fear their incompetence will be uncovered. But the scenes between friends, in which they take turns capturing the image and sound, contain all of the information and opinions that Fariala wanted to get across. Plus, they have an uplifting feeling of camaraderie – even when Nestor is at his most depressed, we feel the love they have for each other.
A scene with students discussing how to calculate economic growth while sitting in a flooded shack speaks volumes about their situation. Another segment in which Aaron sits on a motorbike with his wife, two daughters, a goat and two chickens to go to a Christian church to get the priest's blessing – and sacrifice the animals – would probably be treated as a central, exotic piece by a Western filmmaker. Here, it is just the way things are in CAR, and it is all the more surprising and warmer for it.
We, Students! is a co-production between CAR’s Makongo Films, DR Congo's Kiripifilms and France's Unité. The Party Film Sales has the international rights.
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