Whimsical felt puppet fantasy from filmmaking couple tackles colonization of Congo by Belgian King Leopold in a graceful satirical exploration of the chaos that ineptitude sows
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A series of interconnected vignettes show the vivid, brutal and absurd realities of humans entangled in King Leopold’s project of colonizing Congo, to which he famously referred to as “a slice of this magnificent African cake.” The king himself stumbles in the darkness, not able to tell dream from the lucid state. The white Belgians see the new colonies as an opportunity to eschew existing responsibilities and start over but end up facing the ghosts of their lives left behind. Meanwhile, the locals are pulled into the colonial business, by will or by force, only to find that they’re disposable.
WHO MADE IT: The directors, Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels are a filmmaking duo currently living in Ghent. De Swaef grew up on a Belgian farm and had been dealing with wool all her life, making puppets from an early age. Now, this craft has found its new iteration in wool stop-motion animations that she makes along with her partner Roels. Both of them come from a live-action background instead of animation, so their medium is a physical exploration of the way life is personified through the fabric, rather than more precise mise-en-scenes used by those reared in the animated tradition. De Swaef and Roels first reached success with their animated short “Oh Willy” about a nudist and a yeti, and then further explored felt bodies in sumo-based “Fight.” Colonization is not a foreign theme for the two, as Roels is half-South African, and had lived in Johannesburg until his adolescence. A dedicated team of animators, constructors, puppet fabricators, and producers helped the couple realize their vision in scrupulous recreation of a feverish reality. Of the voice actors, “This Magnificent Cake!” offers a nice collection of Belgian talent, with older white men voicing the colonists, and younger actors of African heritage voicing the Congolese characters.
WHY DO WE CARE: Colonization is a heavy subject, and requires a lot of intelligence and sensitivity from the makers for the film to be successful. “This Magnificent Cake!” is a satirical, abstract piece, which doesn’t seek to educate on the bloody history of King Leopold’s empire-building—that’s a whole separate endeavor which hopefully will be explored in time by an incoming generation of Congolese or Belgian-Congolese filmmakers. However, “This Magnificent Cake!” manages to drive all the things you need to know about colonization to the point, while also fixing the issues that had plagued the preceding rich, but the problematic tradition of satirical stabs at Leopold’s Congolese disaster. While Leopold himself is present in this narrative, an authoritarian, albeit loopy tyrant, the scope of complicity is widened to show how colonization was able to spread with the energy of Ponzi schemes, because the white colonists who enabled the project’s implementation were sleazy opportunists. The narratives of complicity are the defining force in how we revise history today, and to see the ordinary Belgians pursue the African dream through losing their humanity is a much-needed perspective on the matter. The hazy adventures of Belgian settlers are no less eloquent than Joseph Conrad’s most poignant scenes in “Heart of Darkness,” but they’re not attributed the status of heroics or catastrophes. Drunken bouts, shitting in the bushes and altered states—the utter mundanity of evil as depicted in “This Magnificent Cake!” is the lesson we fail to learn again and again, whenever genocide fuses itself with the routine practices of the petty bourgeoisie.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: “This Magnificent Cake!” is a very physical creation, where the plot becomes one with the sensory fabric of the puppets, props, and backgrounds. Everything is made of wool or other materials, and the felt sensibility simultaneously makes the film’s universe more tangible, as well as informing it with an additional level of abstraction. There are no familiar cues that one would link with colonization: no mud, missing limbs, or factual mistreatment. When the black characters die, it’s not through direct brutality by the whites, but through Rube Goldberg kinds of mishaps, where the disregard for black lives is not only a learned ideology but a natural state of affairs. This line of inquiry is at its most accomplished in the storyline of a baker’s son, who absconds in the jungle with his family’s life savings. When his black servants die in a freak accident, he is mildly inconvenienced. Yet, the setting loneliness finds an outlet when a chance encounter with a giant snail inspires kinship because the mollusk shares hist pastiness of face. Because its puppets are rendered in the wool of varying hues, yet every one of the characters looks like an adorable felt flesh potato, “This Magnificent Cake!” becomes a powerful exploration of colonization’s race politics. And it doesn’t just jab the enterprising Belgians for their ignorance. The black characters in the film are all nuanced, diverse portrayals of members of the invaded people. The pygmy man Ota seeks refuge from his devastating loss in a demeaning servant role at the hotel. His brother denounces the arrivals and their alien practices, while a vary porter sees the terrifying events around him as a commandment to return to his culture: the revelation for which he did not need instruction on theology from the colonists. Just a little over 40 minutes long, “This Magnificent Cake!” is a profound, thought-provoking, macabre but lusciously funny film that dissects DR Congo’s colonial history from unexpected angles. A pleasure to admire in all its meticulous detail, from the tiny fabric-wrapped beer-bottles to the pearls of tears that fall down woolen cheeks, Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels’s creation might be one of the most beautiful and vital animated films of the past decade.
If you’re in NYC, you can see “This Magnificent Cake!” on the big screen at the Animation First 2020 festival running in NYC’s FIAF 7th-9th February. For more information, schedule, and tickets, see their website.
This Magnificent Cake! (Ce Magnifique Gâteau!), 2018
Directors: Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels
For more content like this sign up for our weekly newsletter