Home » Loved: Renzo Martens, Enjoy Poverty

Loved: Renzo Martens, Enjoy Poverty

Last night we saw Enjoy Poverty at Hot Docs, the documentary film festival currently on in Toronto.


The neon sign. Image: fadwebsite.com

Seeing as how it was sponsored by the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, we were surprised to recognize only two artists – Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak – in the audience.

The film sees Dutch artist Renzo Martens travel through the Congo armed with a camera and an enormous neon sign that reads, in English, ‘Enjoy Poverty (please)’, which he erects at various intervals amid desperately poor Congolese villagers.

There’s something incredibly uncomfortable about watching someone with his own agenda filming the tragedy of poverty stricken Africa. He befriends the villagers and interviews them about the difficulty of their situation, their malnourished children and the fact that they barely make enough to get by.

They put their trust in him, but his own agenda (to put up his signs in their villages) is entirely foreign to them. Even as he explains to them that their situation is unlikely to change, the bewilderment on their faces is clear. He’s here, what can they do? To the audience it verges on a kind of exploitation.

Until you realize what’s really going on.


Renzo Martens explains himself. Image: nisimazine.eu

Renzo Martens’ journey is not nearly as exploitative as the Western audience’s lack of action. His sign, ‘Enjoy Poverty‘, represents a huge mirror, or a billboard that he holds up, addressing us, the viewers, who are rudely, and effectively confronted by the fact that our inaction sends a constant, clear message to the Congolese: Enjoy your poverty, since you will always be poor.

The West needs them to be.

The tragedy of this excellent film is that most of its audience probably won’t get it. It is an artwork, and so will reach select audiences, which may be unfortunate because it’s a message that everyone single one of us needs to hear loud and clear.

Enjoy Poverty is playing again tomorrow at 11:30 am at Hot Docs. Click HERE for more information.

DO WHATEVER YOU CAN TO GET THERE, IT’S A MUST-SEE.

Click HERE for an interview with Renzo Martens.

Martens is represented by the excellent Wilkinson Gallery, London.

15 Responses to “Loved: Renzo Martens, Enjoy Poverty”

  1. Tracy says:

    I saw the film last night and thought it was an excellent depiction of the situation in the Congo. Having been to rural areas in Kenya, it brought me back to many of the experiences I had and the emotions you are faced with when you get a glimpse of poverty.

    I agree with the comment above that most of the audience will not get the message as was evident by some of the comments during the question and answer session. If after 90 minutes of watching this amazing documentary, the message is not clear, you will never get it!

    This is a must see film.

  2. André says:

    Sounds really interesting.

  3. cindy says:

    WOW! One of the best films I’ve seen. The absurdity of Enjoy Poverty is brilliant. It’s hard not to get the point when it’s so blatant. I hope those of you that don’t like this movie consider why you don’t like. All those reasons are exactly what’s wrong with the current situation. Poverty brings in the most revenue for the Congo? A very wise man told me that poverty is not about money, its about not having options. Poor people in the Congo have no options and nobody is giving them any.

  4. Zin says:

    Should have been at the premier screening in Brussels last week. A rather different reaction. Renzo is Dutch but he also lives in Brussels. A rather contentious and diverse city. One which critiques anything addressing the Congo with much sincere, often knee jerk, thought. That Renzo was another European reminding the poor Africans of their plight seemingly dominated the minds of many I happened to speak with over the last few months and that night. I don’t think that point should be ignored. The first time i saw this film was at a test screening-dinner Renzo organized in October. I too had a similar feeling as those who have commented here. A legacy of Joseph Conrad is tightly referenced in the film. But maybe that is too academic a statement to make. The scene with the American at the end should have opened the film. Very glad to hear that it screened in Toronto.

  5. v durant says:

    I haven’t seen the film, however, I have lived travelled and worked as an artist in Africa and it appears on the surface, self indulgent. Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness over a hundred years ago and it is time to move on. I have seen beauty in adversity and wealth in poverty. Quit imposing your western viewpoint.

  6. vera says:

    Saw ‘Enjoy Poverty’ in Amsterdam in November at a screening with Martens hosted by Mark Nash. The discussion that followed the screening centred on Martens’ narcissism, his abuse of trust of those suffering extreme poverty, and on the questionable ethics of playing the hero at other peoples’ expense. While it’s clear that he went to considerable trouble to make that particular pilgrimage, imposing irony on his subjects seemed to me just another form of colonization. There’s a profound difference between heroics and heroism, and in this case any modesty, commitment and courage were outweighed by a curious kind of arrogance. That the film invites debate is a credential, but the film itself is mostly bad-boy hi-jinks dressed as idealism.

  7. Mark Ashley says:

    I thought I saw this movie some years ago … I think it was called Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

  8. LaMery says:

    Mr Martens “work” and its legitimisation by the cultural establishment is simply a shame for filmmakers, anthropologists, and humanitarian workers alike, and for nay perosn wiht an artistic sensibility.

    The “artist”intention is not clear after seeing the film. What is your point Me Martens? that you’re a bad m..fucker making fun of the ones who feed you? the art sector? the poor? you exploit them worst than the plantation patrons you display as dumb capitalists. they at least do not lie to anyone. they do not want to make any point. Whats yours?

    Not to mention the editing, the camera moves and plans, the dirty lenses. Oh how authentic. Real reality dirty africa before your eyes hu?

    The “political” African common places he superficially visits have been already portrayed and shown by filmmaker Thierry Michel in a much greater fine and honest way. Even “Darwin’s nightmare” , dishonest and with the usual emotional manipulation and exploitation of stereotypes and partial realities on show by common media, was better that this piece of rubbish you’re proposing.

    Ahhhh but ok, not its not a documentary!! sorry its art. Mr Martens seems to think that cruelty towards your subject and extreme cynicism will provide a revolution on how we think representation in contemporary culture!

    Well, its not enough dear. As a documentary film maker, you suck. As an artist, you use indecency to denounce indecent situations. that does not make you an artist. that makes you a cruel, shallow, human being.

    I have worked in Africa as a professional in nutritional feeding centers in situations of open and post-conflict. As a social anthropologist, as a human being, I spent years wondering how to film suffering with respect, and how to engage in dialogue with the viewer and with the subject filmed. and also on how we represent and consume images. Mr Martens is a fraud to all visual anthropologists and to any filmmaker .

    He lacks intelligence in the form, his content is full of sterotypes, he lacks humanity and finesse, both necesary to tell stories with images, stories about grave subjects. He does not tell us anything about that Africa. And yes, we could have spared the musical mystical moments as well, and the humiliation he does to Africans he meets.

    I wonder how you dare, dear. to film death and life with such an attitude. You’re a dumb piece of crap, you’re not revolutionalry, you’re not making any art.

    I bet you’re happy to have these reactions, huh? make you exist, somehow.

    Its not enough to be cruel to be an artist. We are not all dumb audiences behind the screen.

    the funniest thing is how come this piece of “art” is legitimised by the cultural establishment that produces and distributes it. In the name of freedom of speech? Maybe they consider that anything that is disturbing deserves the “art” label.

    We definitely have a long way to go…

  9. Falani Manu says:

    @LaMery
    Judging from your reaction, the “artist” has succeeded in arousing quite some emotion. Martens repeatedly says during interviews that his objective was to hold a mirror up to the Western development aid industry and the subjects of their attentions.

    Aid funds are often raised with pictures of bony kids with flies for eyes, so what is wrong with a man recruiting the African to document his hopeless position? Renzo Martens admits not having shared the proceeds of the film with its actors, but he also notes that aid workers also live separate, luxurious lives, even in the midst of poverty!

    The legitimization by the cultural establishment is inescapable. IMHO, art is not confined to one interpretetion of or perspective, nor bound by particular ethical rules.

  10. Anne says:

    LaMery reaction pretty much proves the point for me that there is much truth in the movie by Renzo Martens.

    Renzo is absolutely unethical, but he is unethical on purpose.

    The question is, are people like LaMery aware of being on the same level? Or do they think they are somehow better?

    The question is, do I think I am better?

  11. Esa T. kemppainen says:

    Greetings.
    I just recently saw your documentary “Enjoy Poverty “ on TV. I was touched not by the subject alone but your courage in handling it. You raised a case that at least some of those locals (photographers) could earn good money but it was stopped due to bureaucracy and hypocrisy.
    That fact that local people are forbidden to earn good money shows the core of our world: that money would have helped many more around them and it would have created a small money flow, but instead they have to stay poor so that the companies can raise enormous profits. You brought that forward very plainly.

  12. I was 11 years when I got my first 110 mm Kodak camera. Since that day, I become a different person. Before my first camera I use to stand in front of any camera I encounter. With my own camera in hand I learned from BBC, TV5 and other Western TV who broadcast to the Arab world in Arabic that camera tell the truth.

    I didn’t discover the power of my camera and never associate it with power before I let west Beirut to Northern Europe. Here I learned, even if you travel to the very country you left with a camera in hand remember not to look or act like a colonialist, because colonialists either they have a gun in hand, food or a camera.
    Can a colonialist get out of the stereotype he designed of himself through the years?
    The answer is maybe it can happen when the colonialist handle the camera to the colonized.

  13. Marianne says:

    So, it’s ok to create “art” at the expense of others?! Oh and a documentary is supposed to be successful because it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable?! It’s one thing to probe the motivation and ethics of aid agencies, reporters, and professionals working in developing countries … but to use the local residents, who clearly do not understand your intentions and who nevertheless place their trust in you, to use these people as subjects in your self-indulgent experiment is not only exploitative, it is downright sadistic. You betray the participants in your documentary. For the sake of making your earth shattering revelations, you embarrass and confuse young men by having them photograph a malnourished child, who might be their brother or sister or cousin, and is most certainly a member of their community. For the sake of your “experiment,” you allow those young men to believe that they can make lots of money by taking shocking photographs. Then, when your experiment fails, as you knew it would, you just drop them, leaving them in a bewildered, dejected state. You aggressively interrogate an aid worker about a logo on a plastic sheet that is used to shield refugees from the rain. Was this the issue that was foremost on your mind when interviewing someone working on the ground in a refugee camp? Did you bring a replacement supply of no-name plastic sheets with you?! Your technique is one of the most undignified and unprofessional I have ever witnessed. You have abused your privilege as a filmmaker among people who welcomed you warmly. I am left questioning YOUR motivations and YOUR contribution to the people of Congo.

  14. Warren says:

    Renzo slaps us in the face with our own greed. Some of the commenter’s are not even aware they’ve been slapped, let alone understand Renzo’s point. Wonderful. Beautiful. Brave. Painful.

  15. Joanne Hutchinson says:

    I saw the film this evening on television and thought it was a brilliant way to show the irony of it all. I too try to help the people of Zambia Africa and I hope to build a hospitality/trade school on 2015 so the people of Kalabo, Western Province can sustain themselves. I agree that the NGO’s go in to do what they can, but when they leave history will repeat itself. People have to be trained to take care of them selves. Education is everything. I applaud you Renzo and if you would like to read my blog it is medwoman.wordpress.com. If you are looking for another project I can send you the draft for the self sustaining school. PS. I don’t suppose you know what happened to the little girl whom you fed. That sad family ripped at my heart.

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