Fipadoc: Cobalt, the electric dream in the West and the reverse in Africa?

"Cobalt, the other side of the electric dream", documentary by Quentin Noirfalisse and Arnaud Zajtman, presented at Fipadoc 2023 in Biarritz.

© Silk Drum Films

Text by: Siegfried Forster Follow

10 mins

From extraction to sale, the history of the cobalt industry – essential for running the batteries of smartphones and electric cars – is riddled with scandals.

And 70% of world production is in Congo.

At the International Documentary Film Festival in Biarritz (Fipadoc), Quentin Noirfalisse and Arnaud Zajtman presented their investigative feature “Cobalt, the other side of the electric dream”.



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: What new information does your documentary provide on the harmful consequences of cobalt mining


Quentin Noirfalisse


The interest of this documentary for the European public and the African public, and in particular the Congolese, is to go deep into the entire cobalt supply chain.

There is mining with industrial mines and their problems like corruption, environmental damage;

there are the problems of artisanal mines: many talk about child labor, but there are also health issues for the diggers.

There is the problem of market domination, in particular by Chinese or international buyers, such as



an Anglo-Swiss company with an annual turnover of more than 200 billion euros

, Ed].

The strength of the documentary is to be based on excellent research and reports made over the past ten years by NGOs on the issue of cobalt and mining in Kolwezi and Lubumbashi.

But we are also broadening the framework to ask ourselves the question of the supply of raw materials in Europe.

With the transition to electric vehicles, the European continent finds itself in a rather complicated situation to manage: there is a great dependence on Chinese batteries for our vehicles, telephones, computers.

At the same time, there is a desire from Europe to become a little more independent through the “European Alliance for Batteries” plan.

But where do we find the raw material?

This debate is exploding with the reopening of mines in Europe.

For example, we, in Belgium, we had debates to open the mines.

For this, we draw a parallel between the Congolese situation and the Finnish situation.

It is a contribution of the documentary.

And for the Congolese side


We give the floor to the Congolese, to Congolese in action: a lawyer defending human rights and fighting to obtain reparations, in particular for people who are victims of corruption in Congo, involving a Luxembourg-based company, Eurasian Resource Group, and

Dan Gertler


an Israeli-American businessman and billionaire

, Ed], very close to former Congolese President Joseph Kabila.

The work of Célestin Banza Lubaba Nkulu, a pioneer in research on the environmental impact of mining in the Lubumbashi region, is shown, with strong suspicions of risks of deformation for children, with dangers for DNA people and residents living near the mines.

The film makes it possible to show that the situation may seem very difficult in the Congo but, on the other hand, there is a civil society, researchers, scientists, who intervene, get active and ask the political world and businesses to take this into account. account.

Your documentary is entitled

Cobalt, the other side of the electric dream


Can we say that the reverse is in Africa, and the dream especially in Europe and the West


The dream of the electric car takes up the advertising codes of the classic combustion car.

That is to say the promise of retaining freedom, mobility, of having a technological vehicle that could soon drive on its own… That's the dream they're selling us.

In fact, everything has to change for nothing to change.

What struck us was the extent to which the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, in charge of this European Battery Alliance, did not really talk to us about other mobility alternatives during our interview.

But the reverse is for everyone.

First, there are the very concrete effects of mining.

We show it in the Congo, but it exists in many other countries – when it affects nickel, it's in Indonesia, when it affects copper or lithium, it's in Latin America... to say exploiting resources in a sustainable way is complicated.

And on the European side, we haven't felt too much of a questioning of our way of life.

Quentin Noirfalisse, co-director with Arnaud Zajtman of the documentary "Cobalt, the other side of the electric dream", presented at Fipadoc 2023 in Biarritz.

© Siegfried Forster / RFI

You focus on the mine case in Kolwezi, DRC.

You show workers, NGOs, the Amnesty International report.

In the end, is there the dream that an operation could be realistic even with European standards


What was interesting, in Congo, we didn't meet a single person who told us that they are one hundred percent against mining or that everything has to be stopped.

The Congolese realize that it is an important source of financing for the country's economy.

Afterwards, does the Congolese state benefit from it?

Many people do not agree and consider that the Congolese state does not benefit enough.

International companies, Chinese companies would be the big winners of this exploitation.

On the other hand, there are many environmental standards that are in place in Congo.

The legal apparatus, legal, is not so bad, the problem, it is the installation.

So we are faced with a relatively complicated situation, but with the impression that it is not necessarily inevitable, because we have African countries which have managed to get their hands on their sector, such as, for example, the Botswana with the diamonds.

He said to himself: what has been extracted here must be transformed here.

Because it is the transformation that creates employment.

Is extraction that respects environmental standards possible


We show in the film, that even in Finland, a country at the top of all environmental rankings, an extremely wealthy country, etc.

there are problems.

There have been pollutions in the past, lawsuits launched by fishermen, etc.

So it's a real societal choice: do we really need this mining activity?

There are no other solutions ?

Something struck me.

A director of an artisanal cooperative in Kolwezi told me: “ 

Me, I am preparing for the post-mining period, because I know that one day there will be nothing left.

 He is in the process of converting to agriculture.

No cobalt without Chinese.

Why does no Chinese actor speak in the film


We tried.

The problem is that the Chinese don't have much interest in giving an interview to a European documentary film.

And they practice in a certain opacity.

Otherwise, they are visible in the public space.

There is nothing hidden.

Chinese artisanal cobalt buyers are here.

They go to some international conferences.

When they are challenged by certain rather worrying reports from international NGOs, there are nevertheless forms of response.

Compared to a few years ago, there is still a certain openness among certain players, because they sell cobalt to European companies, etc.

But we have not at all arrived at transparency.

The Volkswagen Group's sourcing sustainability manager says in the film: “ 

For us, China is very opaque.

We don't know what's going on.

 I found that striking coming from someone in charge of the program for a group like Volkswagen, which is investing several tens or even hundreds of billions of euros in its transition to electric.

Beyond the Chinese, you also had great difficulty obtaining interviews with manufacturers in Europe and the United States.

Is there also the democratic question that arises here


For car manufacturers, only Volkswagen has agreed to contact us.

Others said yes, then flipped their coats in weird ways.

In Belgium, a large foundry of raw materials, and in particular cobalt, nevertheless gave us a form of access, but by taking a very cautious position on the issues of corruption.

In Congo, the cobalt sector is concentrated in a few hands.

So if certain players become infrequent… For example,


had pleaded guilty to corruption in the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, before the courts of various countries, followed by an agreement relating to charges of corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In total, Glencor agreed to pay fines amounting to approximately $1.6 billion.

It is absolutely nothing for them, it represents about 1% of their turnover.

Faced with these actors, there are not many other solutions.

Through the case of Finland, you also ask the question

: can the extraction of cobalt on European soil be a solution for Europe


According to your documentary, the solution for a possible European independence lies rather in the recycling of cobalt.

Is this one more dream


For the NGOs studying this question, recycling is strongly put forward as a real solution where Europe could position itself, because there are technical skills, there is a history of reflections around recycling.

So maybe it's better to invest in this industrial chain to guarantee the supply for batteries and so on, rather than opening a whole series of mines on European soil which is not African soil in terms of quality.

In the film, a consultant claims that the cobalt content in mines in Europe is 30 to 40 times lower than in some Congolese mines.

The documentary begins in the Congo and ends in Finland, and at the beginning and end we hear a local choir sing about the fears, fears, dangers of cobalt mining.

Do we finally have to go through the emotions in order to be able to convey to the spectators the reality behind the electric dream


Scientists, who devote a lot of time to cobalt mining and who have very little resources like activists, say to use a kind of emotion to say: “ 

we have to go, we have to change that


In an investigative film, we talk about the coldness of the facts, but I don't believe in inaccessible objectivity.

We are touched by the people we meet.

We are going to screen the film in Congo next week in the presence of various speakers from the film.

At Fipadoc, the film was programmed in the “


” section.

What impact do you want to have with this film


It's a film shot for people who buy things that work with batteries: vehicles, technological tools... The goal was to go into all the complexities so that the spectators could say to themselves: ah, yes, indeed, it's a complex problem that calls for complex answers, but I have a role to play in it, because I'm buying it.


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