Adam Hootnick’s documentary Son of the Congo debuted at SXSW festival as an interesting project, being the first excursion into filmmaking by sports/culture website Grantland, who co-produced this documentary with ESPN films. Unfortunately, it’s an inauspicious start to this new arm of Grantland’s multimedia enterprise (who have had much success over videos, podcasts and feature articles), well short of the depth of even the lesser entries in ESPN’s 30 for 30 sports documentaries 1, providing a 55-minute documentary so lacking in nuance or material that I really couldn’t recommend it to…well, anyone, except maybe Ibaka’s family to include in those long Christmas cards you get every year that gloat over their children’s accomplishments.
Serge Ibaka is one of the cornerstones of NBA franchise Oklahoma City Thunder, the defensive anchor behind the team’s two superstars, reigning MVP Kevin Durant and dynamo point guard Russell Westbrook, but has developed into a formidable player, a defensive anchor who has developed his game over several years to become a potent offensive force as well. Off the court, he stays involved with his home nation of the Republic of Congo where he has an extended family (as well as 9 year old daughter whose existence he has only recently discovered), working with local charities and dealing with pressures of fame and the demands of having money (Ibaka is in the middle of a 4 year, US$48 million contract extension) in a country without a lot of it.
The above paragraph not only summarises the film, but actually goes deeper than the film does, which suffers primarily from an inability or unwillingness to offer anything in the way of context or depth. Basketball fans primarily will be disappointed – the only in game footage is a quick recap of last year’s NBA playoffs (although this would confuse many in its lack of context or explanation – like most things in the film, it seems to be included merely as a way of celebrating Ibaka as a basketball player in the most generic sense), and even the most casual basketball fan will be surprised how little nuance there is to this side of the game, that is so instrumental to his life. The fact that his speciality is as a shot blocker and defensive player (in the vein of many African-born prospects who have played in the NBA) isn’t mentioned, and you can’t escape the feeling that the filmmaker’s haven’t really ever seen a game. A young Congolese child is asked what he likes most about Ibaka on the court, to which he replies “the way he dribbles the basketball”. This strikes as odd considering Ibaka plays the positions of Power Forward and Centre, and his role on offence is primarily a third option spot-up shooter, so he could quite easily go entire games without dribbling the basketball once. It’s a peculiar scene that clearly never struck the filmmakers as strange – it probably sounded like it ‘checks out’ as sufficiently basketball related and makes the final cut. The other interesting part is Ibaka’s journey from Congo (he spent his teen years in Spain, and plays for the Spanish Olympic team) is likewise omitted. Exactly how he made it to the NBA isn’t explored except through vague statements like “hard work” and “following a dream”.
That the film isn’t concerned with – or possesses even a working understanding of – the game itself would be excusable if it made a really interesting look at his background and relations in Congo. Unfortunately (and this is more problematic than the film’s basketball illiteracy) is a complete lack of context for Congo itself, which the filmmakers are content to portray as Generic African Country. Aside from briefly distinguishing the Republic of Congo from the Democratic Republic of Congo, we learn nothing about the country except one sentence of a vague narrative that the country has a history of “disease, colonialism and conflict”. So the countless scenes to the effect of ‘people aren’t that well off in the Congo’ has no specific backing –the film doesn’t even begin to explain the tensions or conflicts in the area, why resources or employment appears scarce, or anything else. The film is content in seeing Congo as an interchangeable third world African country and we are supposed to as well.
So what does the film contain? A lot of puff-piece material on Ibaka himself, who the film portrays as some sort of hybrid between a Mother Teresa and Gandhi. The film goes to painful lengths to cement his character – his generosity, his perspective, his humility, his determination – to diminishing returns. We’re even given an elaborate backstory as to why he wasn’t aware of his daughter’s existence, in case we even got close to inferring some moral failing on his behalf. And while I don’t doubt Ibaka’s sincerity, it’s hard to see him as a three dimensional figure, and these scenes of him talking however occasionally undermine our perception of him as they devolve into meaningless platitudes. And his (and the film’s) vision is ultimately muddled – Ibaka will talk about how difficult it is to grow up in the Congo, and then repeat maxims like “in this life, anything is possible” with zero sense of self-awareness – the film’s inorganic sub-plot of a young boy who idolises Ibaka and dreams of playing in the NBA (although unlike Ibaka is unlikely to grow to 6’10’’) ends in a contrived meeting between the two that feels as pointless as the rest of the film as Ibaka gives him vague advice. Son of the Congo is a pretty shoddy documentary 2 that is neither about basketball or the Congo, but a glowing, constructed piece of PR advertisement for Ibaka himself; to what end I have no idea.