Benda Bilili! starts with the title sequence being livened up by footage of a man with deformed legs convulsively dancing using his hands as feet, and later segues to a nighttime street scene wherein a group of street children are gathered amidst a backdrop of poverty and neglect, which the camera pans to portray. One of the urchins, only 13 and already a nihilist, in a short speech summing up the climate of societal anarchy on the streets of Kinshasa, loudly declaims upon the necessity to steal to survive, and declares that he would “comb” (pickpocket) a camera-laden European, should he cross paths with one.
Day dawns, and the physically disabled street musicians of Staff Benda Bilili are seen. Benda Bilili means “look beyond” in the Congolese dialect which they use, and as the movie plays, it slowly becomes apparent that the small band of street musicians provides an alternative path and a socially beneficial role for some of the street children in the area. The musicians of Benda Bilili are just as fatalistic as the tween nihilist, but somewhat more optimistic: one of their frequently-played songs speaks of poverty, wealth, and social status as being things beyond individuals’ control, saying anyone could end up on the streets sleeping on cardboard at any time, but conversely, the man sleeping on the street may just as suddenly and inexplicably experience a rise in his fortunes to afford a mattress.
The band consists of four core members, all of them middle-aged men, accompanied by a handful of occasional players and street children who assist them and push their improvised wheelchairs. Some of these seem to be customized vehicles based on bicycle frames and wheels, semi-recumbent, with two back wheels and a slim chair seat in lieu of a saddle, with a front wheel for steering. The pedals and chain drive are placed high on the frame, so the pedals can be worked with hands. Some users thus pedal their vehicles themselves, some are pushed by a street child or two. Such vehicles are called “tricycles” in the movie and though it is not revealed in the documentary how they are made, the disabled people of Africa are well-known for their ingenuity in building mobility aids from recycled materials. There is at least one instance of a moped modified by the installation of an automobile seat. The moped’s motor either doesn’t work, or nobody pays for gasoline: this particular vehicle requires several street children to push it.
The leader of the musical group is Ricky, who with grizzled hair is entering the upper range of middle age and is also the oldest group member. He claims that he became disabled by having had polio, and is sometimes seen to walk using arm crutches, but most other times, he uses one of the aforementioned outsized “tricycles” to get around. Ricky not only plays music, but devises and performs original compositions. At one point, he serves as a singing public service announcement, entreating “responsible parents” to take their children to vaccination centers, get them vaccinated for polio, and, further, to treat children who have had polio the same as those who haven’t “because you never know which one will help you (financially) later” (in life).
Roger, who later becomes the sole able-bodied full member of the ensemble, is first seen as a street child who tells the camera that playing music in the street with an improvised instrument composed of a milk can, a partial wooden bow, and a bit of what appears to be fishing line, provided him with a better income than the begging he had previously engaged in, and helped support his single mother and younger siblings. He is seen to join the Benda Bilili jam sessions which take place at the Kinshasha Zoo, where the musicians rehearse (all music instruction is by ear) and their street children/attendants get a break and have the opportunity to discuss the fact that working to push the wheelchairs of Benda Bilili offers them quasi-legitimate work and is much better than some of the alternatives. Though they seem to pay the children a relatively small amount, for some of them it means the ability to save money for school fees and leave the streets, for others, to contribute to the support of more vulnerable family members. The musicians each get a share of every show’s “take”, with some pooled money set aside for such necessities as beer, champagne for special occasions, cigarettes, and weed (musicians being pretty much the same regardless of age, geographical location, or physical condition).
Roger’s primitive lyre (variously referred to a monochord or a satonge) becomes decorated for various occasions and more robust in construction. Roger is seen to grow up, gain an American-style gangsta-rapper ensemble, and go from street child to (relatively) financially-successful young man, able to purchase home furnishings and move into his own place, during the course of the film, which spans several years, as the societal unrest and economic malaise in which the band exists presents constant obstacles to the band’s having their music recorded and distributed to a wider audience, being able to benefit from the royalties.
As a country which has experienced constant economic malaise, and political upheaval (a coup is one of the events which serves to interrupt filming and the musicians’ quest for recording and international exposure), the Congo could never have been said to have much of a social safety net. Nevertheless, there had been an institution of sorts for the physically handicapped, called “The Banda Shelter”. Unlike many institutions of its kind in the developed world, this particular physical facility was decidedly open to the surrounding community, indeed, the main building was actually open on one side, more of a large bus shelter than a solid building, people freely entered and exited the grounds, and the main service or activity provided that was shown in the movie was an open dirt field in which a group of men with withered lower legs played ball by walking and running on their hands.
At one point, the Banda shelter burns down, rendering Ricky and his family homeless. Ricky works selling cigarettes and other small items at a stand, and others in the band disperse to try to make a living in other callings and places. It is only through good luck, a concerted search for Roger, and the funding and opportunities offered by the documentary team, that the band is able to reunite and achieve its eventual happy ending wherein the Benda Bilili goes on a European tour in which they have the use of proper (albeit manual) wheelchairs and worry about whether the smoke detectors in their hotel rooms also sense the presence of marijuana and report it to the authorities.