Gangster film shows Kinshasa like never before

Viva Riva director Djo Munga in Brussels

Viva Riva recently had its Kenyan premier in Nairobi. Shot in war-torn Kinshasa and made by Congolese actors and filmmakers, this hardboiled gangster film has already enjoyed success across Africa and beyond. [Published 25/01/12 in RNW]

Congolese director Djo Munga has done something extraordinary. He made a film in a country ravaged by years of civil war. The film is currently causing a stir across the world. Whether in New York, London, Toronto, Berlin, Johannesburg, Kinshasa or Nairobi, the film is being received with great enthusiasm. Variety magazine called Viva Riva a “blast from start to end” and the Los Angeles Times named Djo Munga “an exciting new filmmaking talent”. In 2011 at the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria, the film won six ‘African Oscars’, including Best Film and Best Director. Viva Riva also won the MTV Movie Award for Best African Film. The film is still on tour and currently showing in Nairobi and Johannesburg.

Djo Munga, interviewed in a café in his part-time hometown of Brussels, said: “My goal was to show Kinshasa as it really is: raw, real and with all of its good and bad sides. I did not want to make a political or social statement. I wanted to make an entertaining film, one that is a genre movie with a clear bad guy, good guy and femme fatale.”

Munga succeeded. Viva Riva is not just an intellectual exercise; nor is it a film out to say something about ‘Africa’. However it does tell a very energetic and sexy story.

Kinshasa as star
The main character of the film is Riva, a small town gangster who has just returned to his hometown of Kinshasa from Angola. For the first time he is going after the big money: a fortune in hijacked gasoline. Enriched and out for a good time, Riva hits the nightlife. Money gives him power and he wants more of it – which also comes in the form of the wife of a very powerful local gangster. At the same time, an Angolan crime lord comes to Kinshasa to find his stolen shipment of gasoline. You can guess how it ends: the film derails into a bloodbath. Butith Kinshasa as main character, the film’s authentic locations and actors also work to give a fascinating and multilayerd view of the metropolis.

Djo Munga: “It took seven years to complete this project so my past experiences as a producer came in handy. We had to build everything ourselves and train the actors in amateur theater. In a city that lacks a lot we had to set up our own logistics, catering, equipment and locations.” But according to Munga making the film turned into a big celebration. “Everyone wanted to help and invite us into their homes. They were very happy that Congolese were producing a film for themselves. It’s now my challenge to distribute the film to as many people in Congo as possible. But this is not very easy since there are no real cinema centers.”

From Brussels back to Kinshasa
After studying at the prestigious INAS film school in Brussels, Munga returned to Kinshasa. “I was determined to make movies. But I did not want to do this in Belgium. It felt more normal to make films in Kinshasa. There are so many stories to tell there. So I went to Kinshasa in 2001, but there was nothing! It was the petrol crisis so the shops were empty and the people were fighting to survive. Yet the tiny elite, corrupt businessmen, politicians and gangsters were all meeting in decadent nightclubs. But as I said, I was in Congo for a story, so it evolved from there. With all the small details and the way the main characters think and act, this movie could have never been made in Brussels.’

Munga does not see himself belonging to a specific African tradition. He also does not want to be seen as an African filmmaker. He just wants the widest audience possible.“My inspiration comes from everywhere. I like films from Korea, Japan and Europe, but also from the USA. And sometimes there is even a good film from Africa.”

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