We won’t give you a history lesson here (there are other corners of the Internet for that) but as anyone privy to a newscast for at least the last decade knows, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a tumultuous and violent political life following their independence from Belgium in 1960. For filmmaker Djo Tunda Wa Munga however, his home country, rife with such violence and change, presents an interesting perspective to bring to the cinematic scene.
Like many middle and upper class children from what, growing up, he knew as Zaire, Munga spent much of his childhood away from home, studying at a boarding school in Belgium. From there he went to art school and after taking a cinema workshop, was inspired by the passion of one his professors to continue his studies in Belgium and become a filmmaker. But Munga returned to his hometown, DRC capitol Kinshasa, for his feature debut “Viva Riva,” an – at times gratuitously – gruesome and sexy crime thriller genre pic.
“Viva Riva” follows charismatic Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna), who, upon returning to his hometown is greeted warmly by family and friends, but soon must go into hiding when the gangsters he stole a truck load worth of oil from -- a precious, and thusly high priced commodity in the region – catch up to him. The young bandit soon creates more problems for himself when he falls for and begins to aggressively pursue the local mafia king’s girlfriend Nora (a strong performance by Manie Malone) and makes himself a target for basically every bad guy in town. What follows is a relentlessly action packed story, with twists, turns, and corruption on even the most surprising of levels; it seems that every character in ‘Riva’ has one goal in mind: to manipulate anyone and everyone for more money. While the heights to which some of the violence, sex and corruption are taken border on exploitation as opposed to simply genre, the film wraps up with an unexpected and satisfying moment of justice, and arguably, hope. We had the chance to sit down with the helmer to discuss more about filmmaking, as well as life, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While Munga insists he wasn’t aiming for a political statement, he does note that in making a movie about Kinshasa he wanted to capture real life there, “I wanted this story to be as true as possible and close to reality, I mean can you make a film without corruption?” He pauses and backtracks slightly, “Of course you can, but we all know when you get busted by the police, you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s more like just how much money can they take out of you. It’s just part of society, it’s all part of an environment that is deeply corrupted and organized around greed and money.” An environment that is very much a part of “Viva Riva,” where few characters are left standing, and even fewer with any kind of moral reconciliation. “That’s survival mode,” said the filmmaker.
Munga found that the choice of crime-thriller genre functioned both as a way to easily connect with audiences, but also highlight the realities of Kinshasa. As a child living his early years there, he was interested in mafia stories and westerns, but was also growing up surrounded by the violent realities of such organized crime, “I was born in a dictatorship, in Zaire, which is basically having gangsters running your country [so] the mindset of the environment is all that world of violence, crooks, those were the stories that we heard about.” Making the genre an appropriate platform to tell his story, “When I was writing the film, I was more concerned about how I was going to portray the society, how I was going to reach the masses, that’s why I chose a genre film, because it allows you to talk about society but in an easy way, everybody can recognize the hero, the opponents, the money, the femme fatale, but inside you can also put some social content that is relevant for society and then people can think and talk about it on the side.... I really wanted to have a balance between this documentary and fictional or narrative part.”
But filming in the DRC had its challenges, most of all, according to Munga, the naysayers, who insisted, “you can’t make a film in Congo, but what do they know, these people in offices.” The filmmaker, who had worked in the documentary world for many years finally stepped in as a producer and said, “this is the plan, this is the way we’re going to do it... it’s just a question of knowledge and believing that it’s possible to do.” And he hopes to continue shooting in the DRC, with at least 3 more films being planned to go into production there in the near future. And while he is wary of the constantly changing political and social climate, Munga remains optimistic, adopting a work philosophy, that, simply put, is just placing one foot in front of the other, “If my way of thinking was to do something and know what would be the result I wouldn’t do “Viva Riva.” It’s too hard when you start a process -- [to] expect that you will face so many challenges -- I don’t really think about result, I try to build a project and I build it day by day and I have a general vision of the future, but really just try to solve problems everyday and not think too much [about the difficulties in getting to the result].”
One of his developing projects is another of the gangster variety, but this time taking a mirror to the Chinese influences felt in the DRC and in many countries all over the African continent, “It’s a thriller with a Chinese detective who comes from China and comes to the Congo to try and catch a Chinese gangster that operates there... I’m focused on the identity, because China has the biggest migration in Africa in the last 20 years. The Chinese have changed Africa, but Africa has changed them also.”
In "Viva Riva" he sought to highlight changes within the Congolese culture as well, using the film's soundtrack, “I wanted to have chapters about the history of music, start with traditional music with this beautiful woman in the fire and while part mystical, this is the origins,” then going on to highlight rumba and the Congolese music of the 60s, 70s and 80s, followed by the contemporary tracks that are popular there today and ultimately ending with an eye, “towards the future and having fusion between traditional music and electronic vibes, I wanted to create what could be a possibility for the future.” And in many ways, was how he intended to end the film, “Zaire is gone and so we don’t know for the future,” but Munga adds, “It’s full of potential, [the boy at the end] has everything open to his life – if he can make it.”
For a glimpse of “Viva Riva,” see the trailer below, and for those in New York, Los Angeles or Portland (OR) you can catch it in a limited theatrical release starting this weekend.