June 10, 2011, “Viva Riva!” opens in limited release in USA theaters, specifically in New York and Los Angeles. At the time, even though it was only just 5 years ago, it was rare for an African film of this kind to open theatrically in the USA, receiving quite a bit of press coverage, both mainstream and non-mainstream. And while it didn’t do well at the box office, it received lots of buzz, starting with its splashy world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010, and it looked like the filmmaker was on track towards a Hollywood career.
But that didn’t quite happen as I expected it to. Regardless, it’s a film you should see at least once, if you haven’t (it’s available on various home video formats in the USA). Not that it’s anything you haven’t seen before, but context is key here.
Writer/director Djo Tunda Wa Munga said that one of his motivations in making Viva Riva was to counter some of the long-standing, dominant perceptions of Africa and African cinema.
I’d say he accomplishes his goal with a film that unabashedly depicts the kind of orchestrated sexuality and violence rarely seen in African cinema (specifically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – DRC – where such scenes are taboo); though there must be something to be said for being so audacious with this kind of carnage and salacity, in a country still recovering from a war that killed millions of people, and saw women subjected to the worst kind of sexual violation.
The film weaves these often graphic sequences into a familiar, though well-executed narrative, producing an end product that’s nothing short of a visceral thrill! It screams its welcome, and dares you to ignore it, flush with a confidence and all around deftness that this writer mostly reveled in.
Director Munga had this to say when I interviewed him prior to the film’s USA release: “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.”
Call it Congolese “new wave” if you will, maybe an oversimplified moniker that contemporary film critics (American mostly) seem to attach to every realized trend in cinema, particularly if it exists in countries with a dormant cinema history – dormant often meaning that they’ve previously been mostly ignored by the international (read Western) film community.
And despite the fact that Congo-Kinshasans have lived through a myriad of spirit-crushing experiences – recent wars that devastated the country, severe crime, extreme poverty (even though the country is sitting on billions of dollars in coveted natural resources), corruption under a dictatorship, energy shortages, and more – the film, made in a collective spirit, by the community in which it is set, wears very little of those well-documented aspects of life in the country on its sleeve. Its filmmaker was clearly determined to make a film that was “resolutely modern” and forward-looking even, though still self-reflective, fearlessly and shamelessly confronting those taboo issues the people know exist, but don’t talk about publicly.
The plot is rather simple, and straightforward, at least on its surface… Riva is a small time hustler who, after 10 years away in neighboring Angola, returns to his hometown of Kinshasa (a town literally out of gas) with a major score: a fortune in hijacked gasoline, and a wallet overflowing with bills, intent on living the kind of royal lifestyle only kings can afford – a dream held by many of his ilk, with the weight of oppression and stagnation on their backs, disillusioned, fed up and frustrated with the lot life has dealt them, resolving to do what they deem necessary for their own survival, and that of others of significance to them.
On the menu: feasts of food and drink, as well as women, endless days of hedonism, and more.
The only problem here is that the sadistic Angolan crime lord who Riva stole the gasoline from wants his booty back, and follows Riva to Congo-Kinshasa to collect, accompanied by his 2 bullish goons, wreaking bloody, deadly havoc every step of the way on their path, in search for the man who relieved them of their mineral riches – aka Riva.
And, oh by the way, as word spreads of the bounty on Riva’s head, others are overcome with greed, and decide to make a play for the gasoline themselves, including Viva’s best friend, as well as an openly lesbian army commander, a local priest, and a feared gangster whose kept, though miserable trophy girlfriend falls for Riva after he relentlessly, and quite boldly pursues her, despite knowing the dangers of wealthy thug who keeps her on a short leash.
Each of these seemingly divergent paths eventually cross, all ending, at varying moments, on Viva’s heels, leading to a final bloody and fiery showdown that ends exactly how it needed to.
Let’s just say, karma is a bitch, and everyone gets what’s coming to them, good or bad. Some go out in a whimper; some with a bang; others in a blaze of glory.
That there are no acting schools and not much of a film industry to speak of in Congo-Kinshasa is worth noting here, as the performances (from men and women literally culled from the streets of Kinshasa, who were later work-shopped in months of acting sessions) are often quite natural, mostly believable and engaging. Especially its star Patsha Bay Mukuna (Riva) whose reckless, devil-may-care performance looks and feels rather effortless.
But despite the attempts at verisimilitude on the Brussels-trained filmmaker’s part (following a history of African filmmakers trained outside of Africa, or under the tutelage of none Africans, and then appropriating the technology and film language to make movies that reflect rooted sensibilities), this is still cinema we’re talking about, essentially a reinvented version of what’s real, with one of its primary goals being to entertain. And entertain it most certainly does. In fact, comparisons to Quentin Tarantino are probable, given that films made since his seminal 1994 film “Pulp Fiction,” that are resolutely violent, sexual, with an ensemble cast of characters in multiple plot-lines, are often labeled “Tarantino-esque.”
And it’s because of that potential comparison, along with consideration for the filmmaker’s “outsider” training, and his intent to make a “modern” film, that some might question his gaze. But I would question the questions, and wonder if those critical of the film’s style and substance as being devoid of an African aesthetic (whatever that really means) have become so comfortable with the aforementioned extreme, limited depictions of Africa and Africans in Africa, that any deviation from what’s considered the “norm,” rings false.
In his defense, filmmaker Djo Tunda Wa Munga, born and raised in Kinshasa, has vocally and artistically made a commitment to building up the film business in the DRC, which is virtually non-existent, with really no movie theaters in the city, despite being the capital. And I suppose making commercially viable films that will play in international markets seems to be his approach, for better or worse.
Shot on 35mm film, and likely with a “real” budget, it’s a technically-sound, well produced and directed piece of cinema that will hold its own in any circle. The condescending eye with which we here in the states often view African films will be challenged, which speaks to director Munga’s intent to create a film that erases the long-standing, dominant perceptions of Africa and more specifically, African cinema/art.
An endless dissection of the film is possible, given all the ideas and issues I’ve introduced here, and it’s certainly not a film that’s free of problems and it will offend some; but context is key.
“Viva Riva!” is a 96-minute pulsating look at a few lives in a post-war city, in a seemingly endless struggle for independence and the establishment of stable, peaceful living conditions. Look for it on DVD, and VOD platforms.