National Geographic Entertainment (NGE) has acquired the North American distribution rights to the film “Benda Bilili!”, a feature documentary that follows an unlikely group of musicians in Kinshasa, capital of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Due for release in the United States in fall 2011, “Benda Bilili!” will be distributed by National Geographic Cinema Ventures. The documentary premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight, and recently screened at SXSW as part of the “24 Beats Per Second” program
The band, Staff Benda Bilili — in English, “look beyond” — is a group of street musicians composed of four paraplegics and three able-bodied men. French film directors Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret encountered the extraordinary group in 2004 as they played their music on homemade instruments in the area around the Kinshasa Zoo and began documenting the band’s struggles to survive, through music, in the volatile city. The result is an exuberant film that follows the band’s journey from the streets to the world’s stages, culminating in the 2009 release of their acclaimed album “Tres Tres Fort.”
The core of the group is four singer/guitarists stricken with polio, who use customized tricycles to get around: Ricky Likabu, the eldest and a co-founding member of the band; Coco Ngambali, the band’s composer and co-founding member with Likabu; Djunana Tanga-Suele, the member most disabled by polio, yet the official choreographer; and Théo Nsituvuidi, a bass player and soprano singer. Joining them is a young and entirely acoustic rhythm section, led by Roger Landu, a teenage prodigy on the satongé, a one-string guitar he designed and built himself out of a tin can.
“‘Benda Bilili!’ is not just a story about a group of musicians who overcome incredible obstacles to bring their music to the world,” said Daniel Battsek, president of National Geographic Films for NGE. “It’s about perseverance, passion and the human spirit, qualities we look for in any story National Geographic tells, be it in print or on the silver screen.”
“Benda Bilili!” was written and directed by Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye. The producers are Yves Chanvillard and Nadim Cheikhrouha of Screenrunner, and Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret of La Belle Kinoise. Co-producers are O.L. Production and Studio 37. The editor is Jean-Christophe Hym. The film premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight; it is a Best Documentary nominee for the 2011 César Awards, the national film award of France.
Negotiations to acquire the film’s North American distribution rights were handled by Kattie Evans and Tiffany Leclere on behalf of NGE and by Peter Danner on behalf of French sales agent Funny Balloons.
Other upcoming 2011 releases from NGE include Toronto and Telluride film festivals favorite “The First Grader,” the global YouTube film project “Life in a Day,” and “Desert Flower,” set to be released March 18 in select theaters nationwide.
Staff Benda Bilili recordings available: