Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Directed & Written by: Peter Bate.
Produced by: Paul Pauwels.
Released by: ArtMattan.
Country of Origin: UK/Belgium. 84 min. Not Rated.
Narrated by: Nick Fraser.

In the early 1880s, the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) had an estimated 20 million inhabitants. The population was halved during the next 40 years under the rule of Leopold II of Belgium. At roughly 80 times the size of Belgium, the country's vast amount of rubber trees enriched the monarch, thanks to the new demand for tires. Produced for European television, filmmaker Peter Bate methodically makes his case against the monarch, holding him responsible for a holocaust as he turned the Congo into a labor camp. Bate also levels his charges against Belgium itself for reinventing history in honoring the man (who at his death Bate calls "the most hated man in Europe") as a great king and civilizer. In response, the Belgian government has condemned this film's equating Leopold as a precursor to Adolf Hitler.

Visually, Bate makes sure the audience is never bored. A mock trial of the stone-faced king confronting accusers is interwoven throughout, and the sepia-toned recreations of the brutality are clearly delineated from the archival footage. But the declamatory reenactments are not as effective as the facts presented in the prosecutorial voiceover or the inclusion of historical materials, including photos of Congolese children who had their right hands chopped off.

Bate’s evidence, without a doubt, undermines the assertion of the Royal Museum of Central Africa's spokesman that the king was a man of vision, “like it or not." However, there is more information than this 84-minute film can fully contain: a psychological profile of the king (“the little tyrant” to his father); explorer Henry Morton Stanley's collusion with Leopold to exploit Africa; and perhaps most fascinating, the David and Goliath struggle of British shipping-clerk-turned-journalist Edmund Dene Morel to expose the Congolese atrocities. Bate succeeds in presenting the big picture, but many of the specific episodes are less complete: the international furor over the lynching of a British merchant is hastily told, as is the wheeling and dealing among the European powers that allowed Leopold to gain control of the Congo. The African resistance is not mentioned.

The award-winning book King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochshild is a must for history buffs or anyone interested in this subject matter. With a framework similar to Congo's, Hochschild fills in the gap, and then some, with fascinating details, including one personality oddly omitted from the documentary, the Rev. William Sheppard. Son of former slaves, this crusading black American missionary witnessed the rebellion of the Kuba people against European rule and spoke out against forced labor practices, which resulted in being sued for libel. Sheppard won. Kent Turner
October 21, 2005



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us