In Caterpillars, documentarian Elvis Sabin Ngaïbino tells a slight but powerful story in the seldom-filmed Central African Republic.
Caterpillars, or Makongo, is a short but thorough documentary, possessed of the same curiosity and ingenuity its subjects exude. This is the story of Albert and André, two young, educated men struggling to provide the education they received to the children of their village. By gathering caterpillars for sale and transporting their crop over inconvenient distances, the pair work diligently to provide funding for their community’s education. Filmed on location in the Central African Republic, Caterpillars observes quietly but forcefully.
Though the work is hard, there is never an overburdened sense of sympathy in director Elvis Sabin Ngaïbino’s film. What there is, instead, is an empathy and keen observational eye for his central pair. Early on in the film, we see the two quietly move through the forest, carrying baskets and trudging through puddles. This drops the audience immediately into the reality and challenges of the forest commute; the sounds of birds and water and life hum constantly from the edges. Ngaïbino’s eye lingers in long takes, developing a sense of time and exertion without either man explaining their work. In fact, the particulars of the caterpillar hunt are not given verbal explanation until deeper into the film, but the details of the film’s story are impossible to miss just by the strength and patience of its compositions. This is never better than in the pair’s various treks to neighboring villages and cities. Rain pours, merchants haggle over prices, André and Albert scale trees. Ngaïbino follows diligently, cutting around the fat of the pair’s journeys, but still getting across the difficulty of the labor in just a handful of shots.
Ngaïbino’s patience is not only an asset in describing his protagonists’ situation, but also in describing the village community they hail from. Many scenes are dedicated to their volunteer classroom, attended by dozens of young and hopeful children. Community cooperation in caterpillar gathering is emphasized, and that sense of the village’s effort is highlighted very well. Musical performance and funeral services are also depicted in the film, and simply by accumulating these details, Ngaïbino builds the stakes of his subjects’ labor and paints their world. This is a simple subject on its face, but the richness of its portrait encourages one to both empathize with the situation and respect the confidence of the first-time filmmaker’s wider artistic survey.
There is no getting around the fact that Caterpillars is a film made cheaply, but of course it is. The documentary section of any film festival is probably not going to be its most popular feature, and I worry that there are too many caveats that will bar the average viewer from seeking out this film in particular. This is a work of tenacity, made as far outside of the conventional mainstream and even regular indie model as you’re likely to get (Ngaïbino shoots his film plainly with very few flourishes or melodramatic notes). Withmerely 72 minutes, Ngaïbino, Albert, and André accomplish a tremendous amount. The diligence and craft of their documentary is considerable, and almost certainly the most accomplished feature I’ve yet seen in this year’s SIFF program.
Caterpillars was screened at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021.