Swiss theater director Milo Rau knew little about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) until a few years ago, when he decided to travel into the region and learn more about the civil war that has been ravaging the county for about two decades.
The issue had grabbed his attention not only because of its brutal dimensions but also due to its confusing nature. The east of the country is stuck in a political standoff involving government troops, rebel fighters and various militias — not to mention the UN, numerous aid organizations and businesses set on exploiting the region's natural resources.
The Eastern DRC is considered one of the richest parts of the world when it comes to natural resources:
From gold to cobalt and tantalite, there's a high concentration of coveted rare metals and raw materials in the region, needed to produce cell phones and other electronic devices, which is why foreign investors are flocking to the country.
All these economic interests put the DRC at the heart of globalization — another reason which led Milo Rau to further explore the region.
Countless massacres — no justice
As he started investigating the security situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rau discovered a long list of gruesome massacres and crimes against humanity — the scales of which he had not been prepared for.
Since the onset of the conflict in the DRC, six million people have lost their lives. Experts sometimes even refer to the events there as "World War III" or "the African World War" in order to explain the magnitude of brutality involved in the conflict.
The country doesn't have a functioning judicial system either. Perpetrators continue to walk among the innocent.
This was Milo Rau's starting point: Having dealt with the legal consequences of political conflicts in several of his artistic endeavors in the past, Rau decided to launch the "Congo Tribunal" in 2015, a fictitious court of law that involved actual protagonists in the DRC conflict.
In the absence of an actual court of law, be it international or national, his "artistic" staging of a court case involving real people sent shockwaves through the region and beyond.
'Most megalomaniac art project in contemporary times'
The reviews were mixed to a certain extent, but they all recognized that something revolutionary was happening. The weekly German newspaper Die Zeit wrote that Milo Rau's initiative was "an incredible project," adding, "when politics fail, only art can compensate."
The British daily The Guardian wrote that it was "one of the most ambitious pieces of political theater that had ever been produced," while Radio France International described it as the "most megalomaniac art project in contemporary times."
But it took off. The "court proceedings" were first staged in the DRC in 2015 with the original protagonists on stage and then produced again in Berlin, using different actors.
That play has now been turned into a movie, which premiered at the Locarno Festival earlier this year.
Milo Rau told DW in 2015 that the motivation behind the unique project was born out of his observation of differences between Europe and Africa when reporting on such major conflicts:
"The thing that politicized me was simply this reality that we apply a different set of values in Africa than we do in Europe. The Congo is not some faraway planet with creatures living there that aren't entitled to their own pursuit of happiness. I had to get involved. I couldn't remove myself from that situation — or else I would have gone insane."
'Where were you while 6 million people were being massacred?'
Rau was particularly keen to tell the stories of non-African interests involved in the conflict. For him, the civil war in the DRC is largely a product of globalization: "In such regions as the Eastern DRC, people pay with their lives for the things that add to the quality of our lives in Europe, like when we start relying on raw materials like tantalite or when we plant monocultures in order to harvest biodiesel."
"I think it is important to get involved. When people ask me later, 'What did you do while six million people were being massacred in the Congo?' I don't want to have to tell them something like, 'I was busy deconstructing a Michel Houellebecq novel in Paris." Milo Rau added that whoever had any decency left in them had to get actively involved: "This globalized economy demands globally acting art."
Rau is satisfied with the resulting film, "The Congo Tribunal," saying it collects everything that has moved him in the past 15 years: "It is a staged tribunal, but everything about it is real: From the mine worker to the rebel to the cynical minister to the attorney from The Hague, all participants play no other role than themselves."
The result shows something "that usually can't be depicted through a documentary: It's a portrait of the world economy, a very concrete analysis of the context and reasons that have led to a civil war in the DRC and why it's not stopping after 20 years — as well as who has a stake in keeping it that way," said Rau.
"The Congo Tribunal" premieres in German cinemas on November 16.