I had the pleasure of chatting with Congolese director Djo Tunda Wa Munga, whose stock has quickly risen over the last 9 or so months, since his new crime drama Viva Riva! made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall; a film he told me Cameron Bailey, director of TIFF, selected for the festival based on a rough cut he saw, while the film was still in post-production! He took a chance on a film that may not have seen the success it's enjoyed thus far (its director as well) if it wasn't for the TIFF selection. Cameron Bailey, for those who aren't aware, is black by the way.
My conversation with Djo took place last week here in New York City, and I was glad that he was friendly, forthcoming and chatty, which always helps in interviews, from the interviewer's (my) POV.
We discussed his film primarily (of course), which opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, and which you're encouraged to see if you live in either of those 2 cities, because, as Djo mentions below, whether or not he's able to get the money to make his next film - a Chinese/Congolese police crime drama with an examination of China's migration into Africa over the last several years as a backdrop - will be partly determined by how well Viva Riva! does in the dominant North American market.
We also talked about his background, influences, whether he feels obligated to represent Africa in a specific light, and a little more.
I summarized the conversation into a nice brief chunk below, so dig in:
On his background and influences:
I was born and raised in the Congo; I studied film in Belgium; in terms of influences... I'd say my environment as a child in Congo. Also while studying in Belgium, being so far away from Congo, the references I had were more from black rap culture of the 80s, as well as someone like Malcolm X. When I was 14, I read several black power texts, learning about Malcolm X, and you see how he matures, traveling to Africa and getting a larger Pan-Africanist vision, and so Pan Africanism in a way was also important for me in those years. Shakespeare was also important to me as a playwright, Luis Bunuel, Cronenberg as filmmakers and others. So when I moved back to Congo, around 2000, after leaving in Belgium, the combination of personal history and history of cinema I learned, motivated me to say, ok, I need to make films here. And I’ve tried to combine my world as a Congolese, with my artistic world that I grasped throughout the previous years. So, Viva Riva! is a reflection of all of that.
On how the film has been received in Congo-Kinshasa, where it was made, given how bold and audacious its depictions of violence and sexuality are:
I expected people to be shocked… and it would create problems… I had a feeling I’d get into big fights… but they weren’t actually. The reaction people had was different in the sense that they were more focused on the suspense. My understanding… I think the sexual part, the eroticism is part of the reality here. You walk out into the streets on Kinshasa at night, and you see prostitutes all over downtown Kinshasa. People are used to it. There is no shame about it. That’s just life. But I think the suspense part is because people carry a lot of tension inside. So they responded to that highly.
On how the film has been received outside of Africa:
When I was making the film, I was a bit concerned about the response from African Americans and Africans from the rest of the Diaspora. Because I’ve tried to portray the Kinshasa of today, which combats the prevailing ideas of this romanticized version of Africa, and the idea that we have to create positive images etc. But when you look at Africa today, and compare to those notions of it, there’s a disconnect. The question that I then ask is "What Is Positive?" Showing people with nice cars, and big houses, is this what we consider positive? I’m not so sure. It’s just a certain idea of capitalism. But maybe what is positive is how we can try to look at our reality and be mature about it. That’s the journey I took with this film. But I wasn’t sure that Africans of the Diaspora outside of Africa would respond well to it. And so, when it screened at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, I was glad that things went differently than I expected. And people here continue to respond very well to it.
On whether he feels a burden of representation as a filmmaker from Congo-Kinshasa, and, broadly, as a filmmaker from Africa:
No. You have enough pressure as a filmmaker. I don’t want to add any more pressure. It’s a mistake, if you get into that kind of mentality, that you want to please people, and go into the direction where they say, ok, you represent Africa; I’m not representing Africa. I could say the same thing about Congo. Luckily for me, I was able to work inland, countryside; Congo varies widely you know… even the people of Kinshasa, they don’t have this idea of representation of Congo, and I didn’t get into that with my film, and I don’t want to get into that, because that’s not my job. But what I’m conscious about is that there is a lack of representation of Africa by African filmmakers; and in that sense, I chose to make a genre film, because to be able to reach the masses (not only Congolese film, but black film in general), you have to be challenging on the entertainment front, because that’s where people are. And in that sense, I’m conscious to make a genre film, because it would be more thrilling, more entertaining, and potentially, I can reach out to the audience; and inside [the film], I can keep putting elements about Africa, from my environment. I know that I also try to be modern and contemporary.
There’s no point in depicting this ideal paradise of Congo, when you look at the situation there today. So when it comes to violence, and sexuality, and when it comes to family… this is not a “war” film, so I won’t talk about the violence in the east, but I can talk about the torture. I shoot scenes where the type of violence you have, I can put it in the film, in different levels; I can talk about the difficulty in the way men and women relate.
On moving west to make films for Hollywood, given all the attention he and Viva Riva! have received stateside:
The question I get asked often… are you ready and willing to make a film in Los Angeles, and I say no, because there are already a lot of directors there. There’s no point actually in doing that. But of course, I’d love to work with some American actors, since they are some of the best in the world; so if one of them would like to come to Africa to make a film with me, I’d be happy to do that. But I hope to make 2 or 3 other films in Congo, and elsewhere in Africa. I’ve received calls from Hollywood people and had meetings, but I’m not interested in making the next blockbuster film for Hollywood. And while people tend to fantasize about working in Hollywood, you hope that people in the USA will be interested in the kinds of stories we want to tell in Africa. So, I’ll see how far this interest goes, but it’s interesting so far. Maybe some international co-financing, or release deals in America. There’s a big market in Africa, but I’m discovering that the African American market is very important for my films. As well as the African market in Europe. Because if my films are supported by black people in America, London, France, then I can continue to make films in Congo.
On what he’s working on next – the China/Congolese crime drama:
China has been the biggest migration into African in the last 20 years; I think western media has mostly badmouthed the Chinese for this, but I think there’s another story to be told. There are bad things about it, but there are good things. I’d like to get to the human part of the story, and also get good entertainment. But I finished the first draft, and we’re speaking with partners who are interested. I had to finish it quickly, because people want to see it now. I went to Hong Kong, and I went to Cannes, and there was a lot of interest in the project. It partly depends on how Viva Riva! does, primarily how well it does in the USA and UK markets. It’s in those areas that will determine how the rest of the world reacts and the future of the film.
That's it! Again, thanks to Djo for the time, and go see Viva Riva! this weekend if you're in New York City or Los Angeles, and come back and tell us your thoughts!