One of the most exciting films to come out of the continent recently is the Congolese gangster noir, ‘Viva Riva!’ Sean already blogged about it here when it just started to attract a lot of hype. I saw the film at the Durban International Film Festival earlier this year, where it seemed to polarize the audience. Some felt it was entertaining and authentic, while others felt it was “socially irresponsible”. I found myself thinking the former. True to its genre, the film is a stylish rough-and-tumble tour of Kinshasa. There is violence and sex, but not to the point where it feels excessive or contrived. It’s a gangster film after all.
We follow Riva (Patsha Bay Mukana), a charming hustler who steals a truckload of fuel from some Angolan gangsters and returns to Kinshasa to make money off it. There is a shortage of fuel in town and word quickly spreads of Riva’s acquisition. He becomes hot property and everyone wants a piece of him. Throw a corrupt army official and a femme fatale into the mix and you’ve got yourself a thrilling ride through Kinshasa’s bustling streets.
Writer/director Djo Tunda Wa Munga, who has been called “an African Tarantino” has his filmmaking roots in the documentary genre. He was born and bred in Kinshasa and it shows. Kinshasa is not just a backdrop to Riva’s story, but a living, breathing character in the film. ‘Viva Riva!’ has been doing the rounds internationally and has thus far won an MTV award for Best African Film and six awards at the 7th African Movie Academy Awards.
I recently caught up with Djo Tunda Wa Munga in Amsterdam at the Africa in the Picture Film Festival, where he scooped the Best Feature Film Award. I sat in/hijacked Serginho Roosblad’s interview with him for Radio Netherlands Worldwide and asked a couple of questions of my own. Serginho graciously offered this interview to AIAC.
Is ‘Viva Riva!’ in a way a story about Africans who have emigrated and the experience of alienation when returning to their hometown?
I didn’t want to talk about the Diaspora in this film, that’s not the most important thing. I wanted to talk about the city Kinshasa itself. It’s kind of difficult to talk about the city if one just lives inside. So I wanted to use the tool of someone coming back after many years. Because when you come back, you kind of fall in love with the places that you know, with the city you grew up in. And so in that love relationship with the city it was also an opportunity to talk about Kinshasa. Viva Riva is really a film that describes the Kinshasa that I know and that I like. Someone asked me the other day if it’s a love letter to the city. I think I would call it that.
Is it also a personal love letter to the city, as you moved to Belgium for a while, and perhaps fell in love with Kinshasa when you returned?
I wouldn’t say it is because of the fact that I’ve lived abroad, in Belgium, and came back after my studies, that I have a parallel with Riva. I don’t think so because I used it more as a dramatic tool in the story; the fact that he comes back. It’s easier. When you come back you can look at things enthusiastically and describe them. For me, I don’t see it that way. I’ve come back and I’ve seen the country evolve in many different ways. And so it’s very different, the story you have in the film.
In what way is the film representative of the whole nation?
We have to be very serious about the fact that one film can’t represent a nation. It’s impossible. What I tried to do was to represent the point of view that I had of the city. And to create a relation as a filmmaker with an environment that I find beautiful or intense, and then to transpose it to film. If I manage to do that, to have a point of view of the environment, which is intense enough and accurate enough, I’ll be very happy.
There’s a lot of sex and there’s a lot of violence in this movie. How did the Congolese public and people from Kinshasa in particular react to this?
In the screenings in Congo, I think that people weren’t shocked. They weren’t shocked because the reality, the environment we live in is much stronger; the prostitution, the violence, they have experienced that already. And so the fact that they can see it on the screen brings them some kind of relief in the sense that these are our realities, this is what we know. So the screenings in Kinshasa went well in the sense that people weren’t surprised, there was no tension at that moment. Because reality is stronger and people just see that, OK this is a film. They can relate to it in a more positive way.
In the movie we see a lot of universal themes, like love and crime. But are there also typical Congolese themes hidden in the movie that you would only know if you were from Congo?
If there is one, I would say it’s the self-destructive attitude of Riva, towards money. He’s not a guy who’s going to save money, he’s not a guy who thinks, ‘OK, I’m gonna calculate,’ and so on. Riva is really someone from Kinshasa so he thinks bigger than life. It must be really, really large and he goes for that. He goes for that directly. And in that sense I can really recognize and relate to this extreme pleasure of life we aspire to in Kinshasa.
This is one of the few feature films to come out of Congo in the last two decades. Why do you think it took that long for something like ‘Viva Riva!’ to come along?
We had a long dictatorship under Mobutu, which ended in 1997. Mobutu didn’t really allow artists to work, or to be independent, or to make films. After that we had five years of war, and after that we had a transition. All of this made it very difficult, kind of impossible, to film. After all that, we are in somehow at the beginning. We are reconstructing all of that.
As an African filmmaker, are you concerned with portraying your country as positively as possible to an international audience?
I think this may surprise you, but I’m not that focused on the external world, and what they will think of the representation of Africa. Because I think that’s a mistake. I would rather try to focus on finding the inner voice, the truth inside myself and of the story. What will come out of that will be real and authentic. And after that, that thing will define itself towards westerners and international films.
Your movie has won a lot of prizes already. What is it about ‘Viva Riva!’ that captures the international imagination?
Maybe the fact that for once, these are the eyes from someone inside Africa who looks at reality, and probably looks at it differently. And yes I think that westerners recognize that and they say “why not, it’s kind of interesting.”
Do you think this film will open up doors for other filmmakers in Congo?
I really hope that this film will help some other filmmakers to get out there with their own projects. This is the best you can hope for, but I don’t know. We’ll have to wait a little bit, and hopefully people will get there.