SALT LAKE CITY — As a young man born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tshopher Kabambi dreamed of making movies.
When the 17-year-old told his school teacher he wanted to study filmmaking, the teacher said he had a few VHS cassettes, but no way to watch them. The next day Kabambi carried a heavy 14-inch TV-VHS combo set a “long” distance to the school. He continued to do this as many as three or four days a week, he said.
“It’s a very bad memory for me,” Kabambi recalled with tears welling up in his eyes.
Later as a college student, Tshoper rented a camera and microphone to film scenes for another film, but he was arrested and imprisoned by distrusting police. He almost gave up filmmaking but his friends encouraged him to continue.
Today he’s grateful he did.
Tshopher’s first full-length feature film, “Heart of Africa,” opened in theaters throughout Utah on Friday. It’s the true story of former Congolese revolutionary Aimé Mbuyi who finds new hope by converting to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and serves a mission with an elder from Idaho, played by Utah actor Brandon Ray Olive.
Kabambi directed and co-wrote the film with Margaret Blair Young. Young’s husband Bruce Young was also involved as a producer on the project, which was filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The events of Mbuyi’s life that are portrayed in the film took place less than 15 years ago.
Little did Tshoper know that discovering Mbuyi’s story would also lead him to find new faith.
Years ago when Kabambi first met Mbuyi, the director could tell there was something different about him.
“This guy looked like an angel. He was always very nice,” Kabambi said. “How can you be like this? You are just peaceful. You share love and everything. I wanted to discover him and he told me, ‘Come to my church.’”
Kabambi declined the invitation at first. He hadn’t been religious in 10 years. But eventually he went and felt a calming, peaceful feeling there. Kabambi felt good about what he learned and appreciated the religion’s emphasis on families. His wife told him, “This looks like the church you always looking for.”
Kabambi agreed. He joined the church and endeavored to make “Heart of Africa.” The journey involved overcoming many obstacles, including disease, government bullying and one kidnapping-extortion situation that was later resolved.
While most movie crews might have packed up and gone home, the Congolese people supported them until the end, Olive said.
“It took an act of God to make this film,” Olive said. “Tshoper had typhoid and malaria while directing. I had malaria and lost 20 something pounds in three weeks. Imagine what could go wrong and then multiply times 10, and that’s what happened. ... It was a dangerous thing to do, a risky thing to do and we were up against all odds. But there was nothing other than we have to finish the mission.”
“Heart of Africa” is the first Congolese-American production of its kind. The story conveys Christian themes of brotherly love and overcoming prejudice, along with forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.
“The important message in this film is that even if we are different, even if we have different skin color or cultures, we can still work together for a better world and a better future,” Kabambi said.
For authenticity, the dialogue is primarily in Lingala, a Congolese language, combined with some French and English, and presented with English subtitles.
While the plot revolves around Latter-day Saint missionaries, it’s a film for people of all faiths because it’s “real life,” Olive said.
“What spoke to me most was the humanity of it,” he said. “The people in the story, while seemingly worlds apart, ultimately underneath it all, they were exactly the same.”
As a pioneer of filmmaking in his country, Tshoper hopes to tell more inspiring stories about his country in order to better the quality of life for his people. Proceeds from the movie will help provide funds for humanitarian work and aid in the Congo, including causes such as education and self-reliance.
“I really encourage people to come out and support this because it’s bigger than a movie. This isn’t about watching an independent film that we got to go to Africa to make. No, this is about supporting an entire nation of people whose voices deserve to be heard,” Olive said.
“This guy (Kabambi) could have a one-way ticket out of the Congo. He’s the first director to have a feature film released in America. But he won’t. He wants to go back and lift everyone, he wants to inspire everyone. I think that’s a testament as much to him and the people as anything.”
For more information on “Heart of Africa,” visit heartofafricafilm.com.