James Kenney

Interview with California filmmaker, artist, and writer. www.interstitch.com 

You’ve been publishing a lot of work regarding the Congo. How did that begin?
In 2011, a friend of mine found two letters from Zaire, 1976. The Belgian Congo had been renamed by the dictator, Mobutu, and the letter writer was working in a hospital in Kinshasa, noticing many deaths from unknown causes, which immediately made me think of HIV. Investigating these letters lead me on an odyssey of film, photography, and writing. 

What did you find?
That indeed it was HIV that was unidentified in the 1970’s. In fact, that hospital, then named, Mama Yemo, after Mobutu’s mother, was the genetic source for the spread of HIV throughout the rest of the world. In 2013, the book, Tinderbox, confirmed Mama Yemo as the furthest back one could genetically trace the spread of HIV. The book’s subtitle is How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It. The writers argue that HIV had existed in the jungle for at least centuries, but the disease was only able to spread when Europeans enslaved the native people, forcing their mobility along trade routes and crowding them into townships. Before that HIV likely slowly burnt-out within the limited sexual relationships of small tribes, but it didn’t have movement and critical mass.  
Who was writing those initial letters? 
An American woman who had moved to Zaire with her daughter and third husband to work for an American conglomerate building the largest hydroelectric project to date. From their stories, and her diary found later, I made a feature documentary film called, Housewife in the Heart of Darkness. The film parallels the generations of abuses within this dustbowl-era family with the colonial abuses of the Congo, which continue today. 

And you travelled to the Congo?
Yes, in 2013, I took the daughter of this family back to the Congo and filmed her talking to girls there who were victims of sexual abuse. Across the country, children are accused of being witches and are thrown onto the streets by their family. I interviewed a nine-year-old girl in the film. She was raped by the brother of her grandfather. Her family chose to believe the rapist who asserted that she must be a witch, inhabited by a demon. 

What has happened with that girl?
Honestly, I don’t know. Communicating to the Congo is still difficult. I did hear that the woman who had taken her off the streets, died, so likely this girl grew into the chaos of the streets. The capital, Kinshasa, is ten-million people scrapping together whatever they can.

It sounds intense, especially in contrast to your solitary life in the Sierra mountains of California? 
I had a very hard time on my brief journey in the Congo. Kinshasa is a riot of people. A tinderbox perhaps. Mobutu was deposed in 1997, and since then the Congo has been kept in turmoil from neighboring countries and neocolonialists who want to exploit its resources with little benefit to the nation’s people. Many of the precious metals that make our modern electronics function are mined by children in the Congo. In Kinshasa, new violence is currently erupting from a lack of elections. When I was there, I felt safe, because the arm of the law is exceedingly strong. Few want to engage with the police or government. 
In 2016, I wrote a chapter for the book, Searching for HellHere is an excerpt: 
The mostly docile culture is also a continuation—city-mind-thought—of the strong-arm dictator, Mobutu. He introduced the doctrine of Article 15, “debroulle voi”: suggesting to his people that they just get by, fend for themselves, hustle, finagle; however you need to, just don’t do anything too violent or serious and definitely nothing against the government. Under Mobutu, you could be sent to prison without trial and tortured for years, and then you might be mysteriously released and appointed to the government, where you would surely be an obedient minister. The memory of these rules survives into modern Kinshasa. I have certainly felt less safe in cities in the United States.

As a tall white guy, didn’t you stick out?
Absolutely. In fact here’s how described that experience in a chapter for the book, Searching for Hell:  I suspected that I would stand out in Kinshasa. So I prepared a disguise. I didn’t want to look affluent, and I would attempt to cover my skin as much as possible. I wanted to blend in, in order to experience their culture and film it. My costume consisted of blank grey long-sleeved shirts, long grey pants, sunglasses, and a black hat with no logos. A grey backpack for my camera, with its logo also blocked. I was grey. Kinshasa is anything but. I stood out for my lack of color and pattern and taste and imagination and flare.

Tell us about the photo series you’ve also generated from this trip?

For me, it’s about color. I feel that many viewers look at photography as a record of content. In other words, one might look at my photos from the Congo and decode what the people were doing in their environment. But for me, it’s more formal and painterly. It’s about how the choices of the people, in fashion and commerce, color-pop from their dusty city. I have bordered this series in magenta, hoping to frame it formally as compositions of color. I am still working through the thousands of photos I took there. I spend a lot of time in processing color and values to express a more painterly view. Often, the exuberant and feminine color is in contrast with the harsh reality of their inhabitants’ grift and grind.  

For more information regarding the Searching for Hell project, go to:  searchingforhell.com. Photography by James Kenney from the series, Kinshasa. To see more of Jim’s work, visit: interstitch.com.