Friday, March 6, 2015

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Viva Riva!

Djo Tunda wa Munga's latest film is not just a racy thriller, it is part of the director's attempt to build Congolese cinema up from scratch.
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Since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Viva Riva! (2010) has been making waves around the world. After rave reviews and huge press interest in the film’s director Djo Tunda wa Munga, Viva Riva! went on to scoop six awards at the African Movie Academy Awards and even bagged MTV’s coveted best African Film award, no mean feat for a non-English language film.

The film follows Riva (Patsha Bay), a small-time crook returning to Kinshasa after 10 years in Angola. Riva has just smuggled a lorry load of stolen petrol into fuel-hungry Kinshasa and we see him as he celebrates by splashing the cash in his hometown’s clubs, bars and brothels. Life, it seems, is pretty sweet for Riva.

Unbeknownst to Riva, the owner of the petrol, the sociopathic white-suited gangster Cesar (played by the ultra-slick Hoji Fortuna), is on his trail. Whilst Riva parties, Cesar and his heavies set about coercing, bribing and murdering their way across Kinshasa to reclaim their property.

Not only this, but our hero must also contend with the unwanted attentions of local crimelord Azor, his rival for the fiery Nora (superbly played by Marlene Longage). As he drinks and whores his way around Kinshasa without a care in the world, events catch up with Riva as the film hurtles towards its bloody climax.

Unlike much of Djo Tunda wa Munga’s previous work, Viva Riva! strenuously avoids politics; in an interview with the Guardian last week, the director stressed that he wanted to make a genre that would appeal to as wide an audience as possible. In Viva Riva!, he has done exactly that.

Viva Riva!, variously cast by critics as ‘racy’, ‘steamy’, and ‘red-hot’, has also courted controversy over its graphic scenes of sex and violence. On closer inspection it turns out that nobody seems particularly bothered by the corruption, poverty, shootouts or brutal beatings, but the sex scenes have caused something of a stir.

Far from cheap thrills, Munga insists that they are key to the film, saying that in the DRC ‘so many problems in our society are linked to sexuality and not many people talk about it.’ In a second interview, he suggests that his film’s depiction of women (almost all are the victims of violence, and a good few are prostitutes too) is to highlight the collapse of the family in the DRC: ‘Once we are able to look at a problem we can start fixing it.

However, Munga has even grander plans than simply curing the DRC’s ills: he has his heart set on building the DRC’s film industry from scratch. Born into a well-to-do family in Kinshasa in 1972, Munga left home at the age of ten to continue his education in Belgium. Although he returned from time to time in his holidays, after completing a degree in film he came back for good in 2000.

On his return, Djo Tunda wa Munga found work producing documentaries for the BBC and ARTE on his recently re-christened homeland’s bloody past. With this experience, he went on to form the DRC’s first independent production company, Suka! Productions, and made a number of critically acclaimed documentaries, such as Congo in Four Acts (2010).  Indeed, the documentarist’s eye can still be seen in Viva Riva! in the cityscapes of Kinshasa that punctuate the film’s action.

The director moved into drama with his made-for-TV production Papy (2009), before deciding to make a full-length feature film. Munga was determined that his film should be made in the DRC, so prior to filming, he trained 15 young Congolese for the task. They went on to become the crew for his film.

In spite of his film’s success around the world. Djo Tunda wa Munga remains fixed on his main goal: creating a viable film industry in the DRC. He may have trained his first local film crew, but he accepts that it will be difficult to create opportunities that will make them want to stay.  

Viva Riva! faces even more problems in the DRC; decades of Mobutu’s kleptocracy and subsequent invasions and civil wars have left the city in a sorry state, and this extends to its cinemas too. There are currently none remaining, although Munga envisages getting round this by staging a series of ‘private viewings’, where his production company will hire out public spaces and set up screenings there.

The Kinshasa Munga brings to the screen is blighted by poverty and corruption, but talking to the Guardian he admitted that it was a surprisingly good place to make his film, not just for the atmosphere, but because people were so happy to help with the filming. Dozens of people offered to let the crew film on their property during the making of Viva Riva!, and Djo Tunda wa Munga seems keen to stay working in the DRC.

The director has already announced his plans for a follow up to Viva Riva!, which will be a joint Sino-African production and has the working title of Inspector Lou. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film will be set in Kinshasa.

Djo Tunda wa Munga has billed Inspector Lou as another gangster flick, this time set in the DRC’s burgeoning Chinese community. Currently, he’s drumming up funds for his next production, although given his performance in Viva Riva! it’s hard to imagine that he’ll have too many difficulties. Watch this space.

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