The universe of world cinema has been expanding over the years, but other than South Africa, that continent has been somewhat slow in producing feature films that make it past the film festival circuit. That’s why it’s a pleasant surprise when a movie like Viva Riva!, the debut feature from Djo Tunda Wa Munga, turns up, marking the first feature length dramatic film from the Democratic Republic of Congo to be released in North America.
Shot entirely in Congo’s capitol city of Kinshasa, the story follows a young man named Riva, played by Patsha Mukuna, who returns to the city having scored a huge amount of hijacked gasoline, a hot commodity there. Not realizing he has an Angolan gangster on his tail, Riva goes out on the town to celebrate his riches, seeing the beautiful Nora (Manie Malone) dancing in a night club, he starts pursuing her. That doesn’t go over well with her boyfriend, a local crimelord who also wants Riva’s head.
It may seem like a fairly simple storyline, one that feel familiar but it has a very distinctive flavor due to the rich culture of Kinshasa, and it’s pretty amazing the film even got made considering the lack of film crews and people with knowledge of making films in Congo, so Munga proceeded to find and train people who were interested in making movies and the community gathered around him to make Viva Riva! possible. The results are a story that may feel familiar but After winning five African Movie Academy Awards in his own country, Munga brought the film to the West as an official selection at Toronto, Berlin and most recently, South by Southwest. In fact, the film just won an MTV Movie Award in the just-created Best African Film category, which is pretty huge.
Music Box Films just released a red band trailer that you can watch over on Hulu.
ComingSoon.net spoke to the jovial filmmaker last week to find out more about the film industry he’s helped create and the optimism he has for the future of films being made in Congo.
ComingSoon.net: One of the reasons I was interested in the movie and wanted to talk to you was because I never have had the chance to talk to anyone from Congo. Djo Munga: (laugh)
CS: This is literally the very first movie I’ve seen from Congo, you’re the first filmmaker. Is there a film industry there at all? Munga: Nothing, no theater, no lab, no film school, no institution. We have nothing for the moment.
CS: How did you get into filmmaking and learn how to make movies, because it’s tough to direct movies in general. Munga: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I was born and raised in Congo in the ’70s, and at the beginning of the ’80s, people saw that Mobutu wasn’t putting any money in the education system anymore, so wealthy people sent their children were sent abroad, so I was sent to Brussels to study. I studied fine arts, I ended up studying (in) film school, and when I finished, I worked a little bit in the film industry and then I moved back. “Why did you move back? Why did you go to a place where there’s war and there’s no industry?” But you want to tell stories and there are good stories to be told in Congo. And generally speaking, filmmakers need to be in places where there are good stories to be told.
CS: From what I’ve seen in the movie, it’s really a distinctive place that those in the West rarely if ever get to see. Did you come up with the story before moving back? Munga: No, no, no. I wrote it in Kinshasa. I had started to go back. Even in the ’90s, I would go back on a holiday to get a sense of how it could work here and different things. Also, I worked on documentaries, so before writing, I did research, I’d get a sense of what the reality was, and then I started writing. Bringing the influence of the documentary process into the writing to pull it as close as possible to reality.
CS: Is there any sort of TV industry where you could find a crew to pull from? Munga: No, I mean the TV that you have on our television in the sense that you see here. Like there is no school. Who has the training? Anybody is just self-trained and improvises, but that’s a problem. The basis of sight if having a school when you don’t have that, you don’t have people who don’t have standards, so you can say, “Okay, I want this type of shot” but what does that mean? This is a detail but on a wider scale, it’s the same.
CS: Knowing that, you’d written this screenplay, so how do you go about finding people to help you make this movie? Munga: I trained thee, so I did a lot of preparation before making the film which means that I’ve organized training programs in DoC for staff members, people who become assistant directors, and these young, very dynamic and talented people in Kinshasa, I did a training program with them. When I had that base, I also did a training program for actors with people who have talents and at the same time, have never experienced a film, they’ve never experienced that. When I had this preparation, then I flew in the head of departments: DoP, production managers, soundwoman, all these heads of departments, they came in so it was a mix between the Congo staff and the head of departments, Westerners.
CS: Interesting, because that’s how a lot of Western filmmakers go about it when they go to foreign countries to make films, bringing their own heads of departments. But still, how long did it take you to get to the point where you ready to start filming. Munga: Seven years. The training I did I think two years of training for the staff, for the actors, they had like two months the first year, two months the second year and then two months of preparation making the filming.
CS: I have to say that the actor who plays Riva (Patsha Mukuna) is terrific and he could become the George Clooney of Congo if he keeps making movies. He really has a presence on screen so how did you find him? Munga: Yeah. (laughs) He had the charisma. We had problems finding the right Riva. Riva had to have the right tone. He’s an R & B singer, and he came out just like in the run of the casting, and he had that something, yeah.
CS: Musicians in general need to be able to perform in front of people and win over the audience. Munga: Yeah, absolutely.
CS: How did you know he could do what you needed to carry this film though? I believe the French actress (Manie Malone) is the only one who had quite a bit of experience. Munga: Yeah, yeah, exactly, Manie Malone, she has done a few short films. Because Patsha Mukuna who plays Riva, he had something in common with the character. They had the same kind of courage, you know? Courage and coolness. He’s not a hot-headed person. He has his own style of dealing with things so I liked that in him.
CS: I understand this was a movie that was very much made by the community and that when people found out you were making a movie, they all wanted to be involved. Munga: Yeah, excited.
CS: In places like New York, that does happen, but not so much. Everyone is doing their own thing and fighting to get crews, in New York especially. What were some examples of how that worked? Is that how you got a lot of the locations? Munga: No, the staff people I’ve trained, I explained to them the film I wanted to do, so when I was talking about certain streets and how it must look like, they all referred to things, so they all went to dig into their own world and bring that material to the table and from there, we would start choosing. I’d be like, ‘No, no, no, remember this is the type of things that the story talks about” and then he gets it and he can go to the market and find the proper thing and they can go on scouting for locations, like specific houses that have these elements. So it was more of that.
CS: That was all part of that two-year process? Munga: That was when we were in preparation. In the training process, they learned more like shooting on documentaries, they shot films. They did a series “Congo in Four Acts.” When you make documentaries, you look at reality, you train yourself, you get into things.
CS: I’ve never been Kinshasa, but we know that there’s been war there and crime, and we see all of that in the film, we see every aspect of living there including the parties and the fun. This movie is really interesting to me as a Westerner, because I fee like I’m seeing a cross-section of Kinshasa, but people who live there, do they like seeing that stuff captured in a film like this? Or is this just stuff they’re used to seeing every day? Munga: Well, actually, it was fun for people to say, “Okay, we are also the movie.” I’m not sure that Americans are still excited to see New York or Los Angeles because they’ve seen them so many times in film, but look at it 50 years ago or 1930 or 1950, this was excitement to go to the cinema because even if it’s familiar, there was some thrilling part of it to see some neighborhood you don’t know, so it’s also a journey for the audience there. They’re just happy to have a movie and to be seen on screen, you know?
CS: It’s a classic story of a guy who sees a girl in a bar and is interested in her, there’s conflict because of her gangster boyfriend as well as the people chasing him transplanted into this location we don’t often see in film. Munga: Yeah, and then you get into the personal universe, yeah.
CS: Were you inspired or influenced by anything or any other movies in particular? Munga: Well, you’re right to point out the classical part in my writing, because I’m inspired by classic writers like Shakespeare, he was very important writer for me, and also Kurosawa is a Japanese director who is also a good influence in a classic way, but from there, what’s important is that when you have your classic structure, which is also more solid, it’s easier to move people around, because their bases are solid. Then I can put in this universe about Kinshasa, then I can put in these little angles about the family. Even if people don’t get everything, they have a sense of everything that’s going on. When you lose the audience, it’s good but also risky because they start asking themselves too many questions and not following the story. I’m not too into that. I would rather create on a solid basis, to create the kind of atmosphere where they can look around and grasp things, get lost, but not really be lost.
CS: I understand what you mean. Often when we meet characters on a journey, it takes time to really know who they are. Did you have any sort of noir influences because I feel there’s a little “Casablanca” or “Maltese Falcon” in there Munga: That is true. I studied film noir in the sense that when I wrote the script and when I started preparing the film, I watched a lot of these film noir and I read about it also, I tried to find some elements. For example, the femme fatale in the film noir, the femme fatale must have something of the beauty of the sparkling, the surprising part, that I got from there. Nora had to be as she is in the story.
CS: Has the West had a big influence on Kinshasa and is that happening more now then say in the ’80s or ’70s? Munga: Yeah, of course there is.
CS: In the film, we see things that are familiar like the nightclub, but the city seems to have its own twist on things. Munga: Yeah, exactly. There’s kind of modernity from outside, but at the same time, there’s a different vibe.
CS: I was curious by how that influence from the West gets there because it’s not exactly a place for tourism. Munga: No, definitely not. It’s a small place that’s good for the vibe, it’s exciting for the vibrations and getting to things and enjoying it, it’s more like that.
CS: Do Western movies and television shows get there and are seen by people? Munga: Yeah, yeah. On television, American films it’s kind of free television so they watch American films all day.
CS: I’m curious about how society there is influenced because there is an influence but it’s so different due to the natural rhythm of the city. Munga: Yes, but it creates chaos because there is its own powerful culture, and then you have all these Western influences, mingled together with state regulated things, so that creates also a sense of chaos, but it’s all so rich and interesting, which makes Kinshasa unique like many places.
CS: What were some of the logistics of shooting there? I’m assuming the government doesn’t have a film board and you don’t have to get permissions to shoot in certain places, so how do you go about shooting some of the bigger scenes and finding the places to shoot them? Munga: Well, apart from a few places where it was not recommended to film by the government, because they didn’t to for some reason, but the rest of it was quite normal, because the government was cooperative and the people were also, so when you need to block a street, we blocked it. We had the support of the policemen. Or when we needed to have this big scene with the explosion, we also had the support of the government. They had security who came to check. We had control of the area, so in that sense, it went pretty well.
CS: It sounds to me like you took a lot of the things you learned outside Kinshasa to teach Kinshasa how to make movies, so have you thought about setting up a school yourself? Munga: I organize training programs and I’m in the process of really trying to build an institution, to have filmmakers, to get not quite an industry in Congo but just the beginning of something.
CS: It feels like if you have these people who know how to make films now, you need to keep it going. Munga: Yeah, keep it going and add more and more productions. I have more things.
CS: Has the government been more involved in helping you accomplish that? Have they seen the movie? Munga: They’ve seen the movie, they like it, but it’s just the beginning. Now they’re starting to think about “What can we do?” it’s just beginning.
CS: I was kind of surprised by the amount of sex and nudity in the movie. In America, people are very prudish about sex and nudity, and that’s not the case in other countries, but I was surprised especially with the lesbian scene in the movie. It might be shocking in an American movie Munga: It’s shocking in an American movie? (laughs) How about “Black Swan”?
CS: Well, it was shocking. People went to see “Black Swan” because that scene was so shocking! Munga: Really? (laughs heartily) I like that scene actually.
CS: I know. Every guy likes that scene, but it still comes across as shocking to most, but it’s more surprising to see it in a movie from Congo, which you assume it’s a little more . Munga: Conservative, and it is, but at the same time, this is our first film in 25 years, it’s like the first Congolese production as a feature film so like at the beginning, we want to do it right. It was my point of view though and I’ll try to push the limit as far as I can, and if I have some reaction I will, and so we did. Also, in terms of the audience, everything is out there. You walk up Kinshasa at night, 8:00, 9:00, downtown, you see prostitutes all over the place, so it’s not a secret. The violence, violence is there. We had five years of war, there were 5 million people who died, and the corruption? It starts from the airports yeah, so these are not secrets, and I think also the change in our country, I think we tried to have some kind of clarity. We can’t pretend that we’re still virgins, that concept is gone.
CS: I also liked the reference to the famous Ali-Foreman fight of 1974, because that was one of the times, when it was still Zaire and the country was first put on the map at least for the West. They even shot a couple documentaries there, so was that to create a frame of reference for outsiders? Munga: No, the stories about Kinshasa, that was like the most important thing to happen in Kinshasa in the last forty years, so I wanted to point to that, and just to say, “This is one of the symbols of the country.”
CS: It was a nice nod because you remember that and then you see that “this is how the country is now.” Munga: Exactly, yeah.
CS: You weren’t alive back then. Munga: No, I was but I was two. My brother went to watch the fight.
CS: I want to talk about the music, because that’s another important aspect that keeps it grounded in the tone of the region. Was Cyril Atef (the composer) a local musician? Munga: Yes, I had a mix. I wanted to have a vision of a history of music also. I started with traditional music as the base of the film, which also the base of our culture, and then I moved to the first modern music, which was the Congolese rhumba with Franco and after that, I moved to the modern music of the day, what the people call “ndombolo” that you have in the club with Ngiama Werrason, and really popular all over Africa and I finished the fourth part, which is like a version of the future. I made this fusion between this modern Congolese way of singing, abin bafu, but also with some techno vibe and with some drums, trying to create the flavor for tomorrow.
CS: I don’t want to spoil what happens in the movie but I liked a lot of the characters, but let’s just say that not a lot of them survive. Let’s put it that way. That was one of the ways where you realize, “You’re not watching a Hollywood movie ” Munga: (laughs) No.
CS: You’re watching its own thing and in this world, this happens. Without spoiling what happens, can you talk about your decision to go that way? Munga: Well, the idea of being independent and not being mainstream is to allow yourself to bring surprises to the film. When I was younger, I was my own audience, so I remember how I was watching movies and in everything they did this and that, and you need to bring these kinds of surprises to the audiences. Otherwise, they’ll be like, “Why would we watch this film? Why aren’t we watching a Hollywood movie?” in a way, but also, there is a kind of joy and freedom in independent movies like to bring the differences.
CS: Where do you go from here? You created this whole mini-industry so you can make another movie and have a crew ready to go. You’ve developed these actors who are amazing. I would not be shocked if Patsha is the star of every movie there. That said, you could use this movie as a calling card to get work in Hollywood, too, so is that of interest at all? Munga: No, I don’t want to go to Hollywood. I’d rather do two or three films in Congo if I’m lucky enough to do that, but first, now we have other films that are coming to Congo. For now, there is a Canadian production that’s starting to shoot a feature film there, which is amazing, a great opportunity for the country, and hopefully, they’ll do more films in Congo, but for my next film, I would like to have another production and have the actors there in different stories.
CS: So you’ll try and use some of the same people for your next movie. Munga: Absolutely. It’s like a continuity.
CS: Have you thought about bringing an actor or two from elsewhere and bring them into that environment? Munga: Well, I also see the opportunities. It’s not so easy to raise funding for films so I see also the actors who are available, who wants to do what? It would be kind of interesting to have an American actor coming to work in Kinshasa.
CS: That’s one of the things China has been able to do is to have productions from other countries shoot films there. Munga: Absolutely, and that’s interesting to have that combination and mix.
Viva Riva! opens in New York, L.A. and Portland on Friday. You can see the full release schedule on the Official Site.