DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Kinshasa Symphony, Blu-ray (2011)

I feel this film on the struggles of the only symphony orchestra in the Congo may be the best documentary of the year.

Published on January 24, 2012

Kinshasa Symphony, Blu-ray (2011)

Documentary on the struggles of the Congo’s only symphony orchestra to rehearse and present Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Orff’s Carmina Burana
Performers: Orchestre & Chorus Symphonique Kimbanguiste/ Armand Diangienda
Filmmakers: Claus Wischmann & Martin Baer
Studio: Sounding Images/C Major 709004 [11/15/11] [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 1.77:1 for 16:9 1080p HD
Audio: French DTS-HD MA 5.1, PCM 2.0
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Russian
All regions
Extras: 10-min. bonus feature
Length: 95 minutes
Rating: *****

This amazing and emotional film won Best Documentary at the New York Film Festival as well as awards at many other festivals. I think it qualifies for the best documentary of the year. It concerns the efforts of the conductor (a former pilot with no college musical training) and hundreds of members of the only classical symphony in the Congo, to prepare for a free outdoor concert of Beethoven, Orff, Dvorak and others – to an audience that for the most part has never heard classical music before.

The German filmmakers do an outstanding job, with compelling editing and beautiful shots, accompanied by the highest fidelity audio surround track.  Kinshasa is one of the biggest cities in the Congo and a total chaos of decrepit small buildings that cannot be fixed up because there is no money or resources for that. Some shots of the chaotic streets show now-abandoned public buildings of the former Belgian colonialists. The difficult daily lives of the symphony and chorus members are shown, including the many huge challenges they must deal with just to stay alive.  Several mention how tired they are, going to almost daily rehearsals at night (after getting up at 4:30 to man a stand selling omelets). The power constantly goes off, and one of the symphony members repairs the crude electrical wiring to get light again. One musician is even constructing doublebasses from scratch out of local wood (having torn apart his own doublebass to see how it was made), because during the various wars and crises in the Congo, many of their orchestral instruments were stolen or destroyed.

They sing the Ode to Joy in the original German, which of course is totally foreign to them. They learn it a word at a time, from a blackboard. The symphony musicians sound terrible at first because few of them have had any training at all.  But they practice regularly and eventually the concert comes together with stirring dedication and everyone pushing themselves to make this sophisticated musical performance a reality. One probably doesn’t need to be a music lover or to have played in an orchestra or sung in a choir in order to have the tears streaming down their face, seeing and hearing what these people have accomplished in spite of all their terrible obstacles.  Truly inspiring!

—John Sunier




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