When the budding gangster Riva first lays eyes on the flame-haired Nora, the arm candy of an abusive thug she’s itching to distance herself from, she’s crouched behind the club relieving herself in the most unladylike of ways. It’s not the meet cute that you’d expect to spark a life-changing love affair, but then again there’s not much about the Congolese thriller “Viva Riva!” that could be expected, including its very making. The film is the feature debut of Djo Munga, a Belgian-schooled native of Kinshasa who returned to Africa to create a film with the flavors of the sweaty Brian De Palma slow burns and gritty Sergio Leone westerns he grew up with, but with plenty of local spice.
“Viva Riva!” isn’t just a first for Munga, but one for the region as a whole since it’s been over 20 years – a span of time in which the Congolese have seen plenty of turbulence between war and poverty – that a film has been released beyond its borders. Knowing this, “Viva Riva!” doesn’t tiptoe into the story of Riva, a smooth operator whose scheme of filching gas from Cesar, his boss in Angola, to sell at marked-up rates in the parched Kinshasa threatens to collapse in on itself when Cesar’s suspicions lead him up north and Riva’s too busy wooing Nora away from her kingpin boyfriend to notice. Just as Riva must evade enemies and grease the palms of local authorities at a rapid clip, Munga had to overcome a largely inexperienced crew and a meager budget to turn “Viva Riva!” into something that makes up for its almost refreshing lack of professional polish with raw energy.
Already eager to capitalize on his first gangster film with another about the invasion of Chinese gangs into the area, Munga took the time to talk about his take on film noir, establishing filmmaking roots in the Congo, and why being kicked out of film school might’ve been the best thing that ever happened to him.
How did you first get interested in filmmaking?
By accident, actually. I studied fine art and was lucky before going to university [that] I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. That feeling about becoming a painter or do advertising or do some graphic work – it was not clear. And I went to a workshop about film and the trainer of that workshop was a great independent director and said, “Why don’t you try film school?” That was the beginning.
It sounds like you were considering a career in something visual, regardless.
Yes. I’ve drawn all my life and it came naturally to evolve to making films when I look at it retrospectively. Visually, I’ve evolved in all these worlds, so it makes sense to me to make film.
How did you get interested in making this film?
I wanted to talk about Kinshasa, my hometown. I spent a lot of time abroad and my idea was how to depict the different tone of the city and the different characters, the good and evil, and also have a sense of the last 20 years of history of Kinshasa. Then I met these smugglers who operate from Angola. They go to Angola, they smuggle shoes to Kinshasa, they sell them, they make money, they party like hell and after they’re broke, they come back to Angola and that’s the cycle. I [found] it interesting as a good portrayal of the young in Kinshasa today. That was the introduction, then I started to develop the story of the former boss following them to Kinshasa to give it a different angle. [Then having Riva] falling in love with Nora, the beautiful, dangerous woman who is also in prison – that complex love story, and the collapse of the family — they’re all these elements, but the main focus was to talk about Kinshasa.
Why did the gangster genre seem like the proper genre to tell this story?
It was because when you think about making a film in Africa today, it was important to make a film that would be accessible to the masses. We need to have people to embrace cinema. The genre film, the film noir was exciting in that sense. The [touchstones] are easy, the femme fatale, the money, the villains – it’s all simple and works together and inside of that, I can put some social elements [and] the complexity of the town.
One of your student films had actually been barred from competition because it didn’t depict Africa in a particular way.
Yes, [by] the head of the film school. Absolutely.
Have you encountered that resistance throughout your career and has that been something that’s driven you to make the types of films you make?
It’s a struggle for us Africans to get back our own image because the problem that I had at the time in film school was the imagery that the director wanted about Africa were these images that had nothing to do with me, with my life and my work. It was just this vision that Africa should be stuck into a model, basically a Western vision, so I disagreed with him. In a way, I was fired from school. But I think it’s a struggle we still have today in terms of needing a filmmaker to bring stories that are challenging that stigma we may have about our society. That’s part of the job also.
What was the film about?
“Auguy” was a really simple story of a little boy living with his sister and they don’t receive any money anymore from their parents back home, so the sister starts prostituting to help pay for [the boy’s] school, but he doesn’t understand that. He gets angry with her, but at the same time, is also kicked out school, so that is this moment in life where someone is lost.
I’ve read it wasn’t until you brought it to the Toronto Film Festival that you decided to make a film back in Kinshasa. What was it about the experience that made you want to return?
What happened with my short film, which in a way was banned from the school and the way it came to Toronto, the audience grasped it in such an enthusiastic way, it gave me a lesson. I understood if I could focus on writing the story and writing proper story, even if they were characters that I found were closer to my environment of my world, I couldn’t reach out to the audience. Toronto in 2000 was a confirmation that I was right to be kicked out of school, but gave me the strength to say, I can just go back to Kinshasa, focusing on making films and telling stories and it will travel.
When you spend time away, was it interesting for you to have memories of your youth competing with the current situation there as a reference point for your film?
I wrote the script seven years ago when I was in Kinshasa and I ended up shooting the film several years after, so I was an older director looking at a younger scriptwriter. With my experience, I only used the memory not so much in a romantic [way], but just to have little notes about the past. The problem of the family and the trauma they have, it was not so much about the past, but focusing on what’s happening now. Maybe I’ll make a film really about the past [one day]. But this film is about today. It’s about the last 15 years, but also about how it looks in South Africa today, how are the dynamics today. For example, we have the war in the Congo. We have the civil war in the east and how do you [show] that? Am I going to make a sequence where people are fighting? Maybe I won’t do that. I’ll put more like the torture scene, which looks like many kind of torture that you can have with militias in the inland. The past is kind of a reference, but we picture how it looks today.
In regards to coming back, was it difficult filming in a place where there’s no organized film industry?
That depends on how you [define] the difficulty. I’ve organized a training program and I’ve helped train people to get work in the industry, so I didn’t suffer from that because it was all in the journey of making the film. If I compare to my colleagues in Europe, they don’t have to do that. They don’t have to just organize everything because overseas, they have everything. They can just make their film. But at the same time, maybe you don’t have the organization, but you have so many nice stories in the Congo. You have so much freedom of expression. You have so many possibilities that you’re able to compensate in a way.
Did this production plant the seed for further ones if you built a local crew?
I would love to. I didn’t start it with the purpose of getting to that point. But then that’s what I was talking about this organic process. You can’t really control what’s happening. You start something with one idea in mind and you let that thing grow and then you have to interact with new things and people. Maybe this is the seed for the future. I don’t know. I hope. We have been also quite successful in the production that we did with the documentaries, “Congo in Four Acts” [for example], and you also have these new filmmakers, but there’s still a lot, lot, lot of work to be done in the Congo.
The film won a bunch of awards regionally, but what kind of reaction have you had from the people of Kinshasa since it’s a culture that doesn’t often see themselves onscreen?
Actually, people were really overwhelmed by the film because it was not only like that’s the first film, that’s our film. People really liked it – they embraced it. Every week I receive e-mails from Congolese from all over the world with articles, who have seen the trailer, so the same things come back to say “Thanks, man. Our country’s back on track. This is to prove we can do it.” All these really nice comments that I keep and I like it, it’s nice.
Has it carried pressure for you being one of the few to do it?
I don’t think about that. [laughs] [I have enough pressure] in my daily life as a filmmaker, I don’t want to add some new things on it.
“Viva Riva” opens in limited release on June 10th.