AKA: Boma-Tervuren, Le Voyage
Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 1999
Distributor: ArtMattan/Facets Films
Origin: Belgium/Democratic Republic of Congo
Running Time: 53 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death; King Leopold’s Ghost; Namibian Genocide & The Second Reich; Preying Missionaries; Cold Case Hammerskjold; Hate Crimes in the Heartland; The Lion’s Share; Afrique 50
-This documentary was featured as an extra film that was bundled with ArtMattan’s DVD release of Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death. They are unrelated films, but both of them deal with aspects of the Congolese Genocide.
-This is the debut work of Francis Dujardin who directed, wrote, and produced for this documentary.
-The title refers to two cities in the DRC and Belgium respectively. Boma is a port city in Western DRC near the Angolan border. It has over 162,000 people living there and it was the former capital of the country during Leopold’s reign before it was moved to Kinshasa (then Leopoldville). Tervuren is in the Flemish Region of Belgium and has over 20,000 people living there.
-One of the interviewees and people who tried to repatriate the remains of those part of the human zoo was Pius Ngandu Nkashama. He’s from Mbuji-mayi, DRC and he’s a playwright, author, and professor among other things. His books are Blood Pact and Yakouta: Roman.
This review was going to be inevitable especially after watching Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death. I needed to learn about Congolese history and I was surprised there were a few documentaries daring to cover this grisly history during the time of King Leopold II colonizing a part of the former Kingdom of Kongo that was several times larger than Belgium from a landmass standpoint. As horrific as it was with all of the death that happened in that part of Africa, there were certain aspects of that brutal regime that involved the Congolese being taken to Belgium. Just when I thought things couldn’t be this bad with the mass murders, savagery, sexual assault, amputations, buck breaking, forced starvation, slavery, and other atrocities committed against that community, there was one thing that got talked about even less which made me far angrier as I never learned about any of this.
Here came the gigaton truth bomb to add even more to the depressing history.
Boma-Tervuren, The Journey is a historical documentary that also simultaneously covers an attempt to rectify the dead in this situation. During King Leopold’s reign of the Congo, he brought 267 Congolese people from the Congo Free State to Belgium in 1897. This wasn’t due to a vacation or possibly moving to that European nation. They were taken to Tervuren, Belgium as subjects for a human zoo during the time of the World’s Fair. The Congolese were tricked into being imprisoned in this environment where they weren’t used to the weather and were subjected to being watched by the white population where they viewed them as animals. They were forced to re-enact parts of their culture, were hardly clothed, and got subjected to being pelted by garbage and food by these so-called zoo patrons. Fast forward to 1998, various Congolese professors, authors, and historians go to Belgium to take back the remains of these ancestors to bring them to Kinshasa, DRC to bury their remains. They also tell the stories of this human zoo and things involving the culture which became affected by colonization and afterwards.
Even with the few things I learned about Belgium’s colonization of the Congo, I wasn’t aware about the fact that there was a human zoo where they shipped Congolese people from Boma and the Kasai Region to there. This was just sickening how they were dehumanized and used as showpieces for the European audiences. One could make a very strong argument that the animals in zoos even back then were treated better because they didn’t die of smallpox or not being used to the cold Belgian winters like the humans who were tricked into coming there did. Think about it. The dialogue of this film was creative and atypical. The narrator is talking from the perspective of a colonizer. The interviewees talk about the cold historical facts and also quote the people who were at this human zoo. This segues to a point in the presentation that I thought was brilliant where even similar documentaries such as Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death or Namibian Genocide & The 2nd Reich didn’t do as much: All the interviewees in Boma-Tervuren are Congolese telling their own stories. That brought so much gravitas and authenticity to the documentary with these historians and other educated people as well as random people back in the DRC who have insider knowledge on the matter. I have rarely seen this done in historical documentaries even with the ones I gave very positive review to, so this was a huge breath of fresh air. Besides some of those brilliant aspects, the production was no-frills with a healthy mix of archived footage, pictures, and the live interview footage where the subjects are traveling across Belgium and the DRC to fulfill their mission to retrieve the remains of those who were trapped at the human zoo. They visit the same locales such as fancy dinner rooms, the place where the zoo was or other buildings that were associated with this mass abduction of human beings.
The level of knowledge and quality content was top-notch. It was very sobering hearing about these horror stories of these human zoos and how they were experimented on and mistreated in different ways. Things do get very disturbing not just with the abject humiliation in front of thousands of racist patrons, but there were forced abortions to the women, mass sickness, and blatant lies about some of the people captured being cannibals to the public. The interviewees bring up so many legitimate points with how things aren’t much different from then than they are in the then-present late 90s (and still aren’t in the 21st century, to keep it real), and how they were treated as subhumans. This wouldn’t be the last time Belgium had human zoos because they would do the same thing again in 1958 in Brussels where people would feed the Congolese like animals at a petting zoo. Keep in mind that happened just two years before Congo would get their independence from Belgium. Did the Congolese let alone any other African ethnic groups out there steal a bunch of Belgians or other white people and put them in zoos? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. People would riot if that happened (NO ONE SHOULD BE HAVING HUMAN ZOOS!). Pius Ngandu Nkashama even gives brutal insight during one of his interview scenes that really puts things in perspective where he says “I prove to you that I’m a human being…my existence doesn’t interest you. It’s a permanent rape, a homicide, a cultural genocide.” right after there are pictures of the Congolese abductees who clearly don’t look happy around their Belgian captors. That was one of the most powerful quotes I’ve heard in a documentary and it’s up to the same level as one of the Black Wall Street survivors saying her mom told her that Americans are shooting at them in Hate Crimes In the Heartland or one of Solomon Linda’s daughters excoriating the “creators” (I use that term loosely) of The Lion King that stole her father’s song in The Lion’s Share. Speaking of that 90s Disney movie, one truth bomb that was dropped was how one million Congolese died from being starved out as punishment during Leopold’s genocidal reign which further proves me right that Mufasa and that Belgian maniac have something in common (when you consider the fridge horror of the former’s actions) in addition to my noted comparisons between the Shark Island Concentration Camp and the Elephant Graveyard in my Namibian Genocide & The 2nd Reich review. Try defending that, Disney fans. My feeling of vindication aside, the ending scene in Kinshasa was very moving where they did a traditional burial ceremony for all of those who died at Boma-Tervuren. It was very powerful as it rectified one colonial wrong. Granted, it shouldn’t have been an end to itself, but it does give me peace that those who suffered are back home and treated with dignity.
Boma-Tervuren, The Journey does have a few issues. The film has aged a bit and one can tell that the modern scenes were made in the late 90s with the fashion and some of the cars in the background. I certainly noticed how this movie looked older compared to Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death with the film as well as the post-production effects. There were some subtitle errors like the flu being spelled as “flew” or how there were sentences that were omitted when some of the Congolese were talking in their native languages. I know the Lingala dialogue was subtitled, but I think some of them may have spoke in Tshiluba, Kikongo, or another native language that may not have official status in the DRC (Side note: That country has 242 languages that are native to that part of Africa). While not a flaw in this documentary, this is also a very tragic watch with all the horrors that have happened in Belgium. Sure, Leopold and his brutality is mentioned in places (I also loved that scene where Nkashama looks at a Leopold statue with pure disdain), but a lot of these atrocities will make people very uncomfortable. Those with a moral compass will be sad and angry while wondering why they didn’t learn about this in school. Belgium still hasn’t owned up to the zoo or all the things their government did when they colonized that Central African nation even to this day. Much like other documentaries of this ilk, don’t watch this if you’re depressed. This has a lot of important information, but this will chill your soul hearing about all the horrors that happened to the Congolese people.
This obscure documentary was way more powerful than I expected. The testimonies from the Congolese interviewees were so impactful and the journey to repatriate the remains of these victims was so noble of them. They deserve a medal for that. The production is low-key, but still effective in what it needed to do. The level of knowledge and wisdom brought up is phenomenal even though this is VERY heavy and depressing stuff. However, there are aged elements like the filming and some post-production gaffes. That didn’t deter me from giving Boma-Tervuren, The Journey my highest possible rating. Funny how this “extra” film in the Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death DVD was better than the main film in my personal opinions even though I would still recommend watching both as they cover correlating parts of this little-known genocide.
Bosembo aboya te!
Adjustable Point System:
Subtract 1-2 points if you’re not a fan of depressing parts of history.
-Eye-opening information about the human zoos as well as the timeless nature
-Proper representation with the Congolese giving the information
-Subtitle errors and omissions
-Gets very depressing
Final Score: 10/10 points
Content Warning: Boma-Tervuren, The Journey should be fine for teens and up. The content is very tragic as it deals with human zoos, psychological as well as physical torture, murder, dehumanization, and some of the worst kind of racism done to Black people as part of the larger Congolese Genocide that isn’t talked about as much.
All videos and photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Boma-Tervuren, The Journey is property of ArtMattan and Facets Films. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of ArtMattan and Facets Films.