Djo Tunda Wa Munga‘s new thriller Viva Riva! is the first feature film out of the Democratic Republic of Congo to grace the international stage since Mwenze Ngangura‘s La Vie Est Belle in 1987. We had the chance to Skype interview Djo, who contextualized this beautifully acted, 96 minute film, which is both boldly violent and defiantly sexual.
Viva Riva! follows the lives of a handful of characters living in the margins of Kinshasa, Congo’s swollen capitol, during a fuel shortage. Pashta Boy (Riva), takes advantage of the opportunity and makes a fortune by smuggling petrol into the city. While Riva blows his profits on prostitutes and romantic entanglements, the Angolan thugs he stole the fuel from are hot on his trail. The production uses new HDSLR cameras, and the quality pays off along with the explosive, intricate cinematography and scenery.
While the film has been revered by audiences at festivals such as Berlin, Toronto, and South By Southwest, some Africanists may worry that Viva Riva! provides yet another pessimistic look at Africa. Djo opposes this view: “I’ve heard people with a propaganda agenda say, ‘This is not a good image of Africa,’” Djo puts forth, “but this is not a tourism project. That’s not the point. It is to make a film, and having the first film in so long shows its own sense of logic.”
While Congo’s film industry has been virtually on hiatus under Mobutu Sese Seku’s regime (1960-1997), many countries on the continent have developed their own unique industries. Poignant West African directors like Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety created films that criticized neocolonialism. High budget South African films have become seen as increasingly less “African.” Most recently, Nollywood has demonstrated that trite soap opera-esque story lines have a big audience, boosting the Nigeria’s film industry ahead of Hollywood in size.
Viva Riva! is not necessarily a part of this context. Djo thinks of it as not only an auteur’s film, but one that would interest mass audiences. “The history [of African cinema] is too complicated. Let’s try to get at many people as possible in theaters to enjoy the film.” This isn’t purely an idealistic outlook: Viva Riva! swept the African Movie Awards, which is usually a Nollywood-heavy event. Aside from the critically acclaimed film festivals that have embraced the movie – critics have already compared it to City of God – it has already garnered release dates across the United States, beginning in June, to be followed by a Congolese release in September.
Riva’s bipolar violent/erotic drive makes the film shocking and graphic, evoking the cultural (and political) sense of adventurous endeavor amongst instability. Congolese mythology is referenced as well. In one instance, the beautiful Manie Malone (Nora) says to Riva, “money is like poison and at the end it always kills you.” The line evokes certain aspects of the popular story of Mami Wata, a pantheon of matriarchal water deities who caution against greed, money, and excess. According to the Congolese myth, these things lead to unhappiness and misfortune; in extreme cases, sterility. Riva and the other characters are all using bullets and dollars to get what they like, and endless misfortune comes their ways.
Djo laughed when asked about Mami Wata. He explained the allusion was not a conscious act, but that traditional spirits were a naural part of his upbringing. Unlike many African books and films that have failed to locate themselves in a specific African identity, the in-your-face Viva Riva! holds onto a true Congolese setting and viewpoint, and is both written and directed by an authentic Congolese director who hopes this is the start of a new, homegrown film industry.
Release Dates (more to come):
Los Angeles – Nuart Theatre
New York – Angelika
Portland – Cinema 21
Seattle – Varsity Seattle
Washington D.C. – E Street
Berkeley – Shattuck
San Francisco – Lumiere Theatre
Philadelphia – Ritz Five
San Diego – Ken Cinema
Denver – Chez Artiste
Cambridge, MA – Kendall Square
Edina, MN – Edina Cinema
St. Louis – Tivoli Theatre
Congolese Release in September.