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Djo Munga: The Art of Pushing Boundaries in African Cinema (Part 1)

“In Kinshasa, every day is a struggle and every night is a party. In a city where everything is for sale, Riva has something everyone wants.” – Djo Tunda wa Munga’s debut feature film, Viva Riva! had cinema buffs the world over in awe. Set in Kinshasa, DRC, the film depicts the country’s tumultuous existence as it chronicles the life of Riva, an ambitious mobster in the making, who returns home after spending a decade in Angola, only to find the country in dire straits as a result of fuel shortages.  What unravels is an enthralling story of frank realism that includes crime, violence, disorder, corruption and sexuality, revealing the myriad complexities ofKinshasa and its citizens. In his own words, Djo Munga and the art of pushing boundaries in African cinema. 

Belinda: Why was it important to tell the story of Viva Riva the way you did?

Djo: This was the first film in 26 years in Congo. When you realise there is no film industry in your country and you are producing the first film in 26 years, you really want to do something different and make a great film. At the same time, you want what you have to say to be personal and important and for people to understand it. In that sense I wanted to talk about the city of Kinshasa because that’s my hometown and many people can relate to it. In the global sense, it was really important to try and describe the city in a way it has never been described.  You talk about night life, the problems that we have and it is important to address certain issues and I also wanted to explore the last 13 years of the city, the war, violence and the change, you know, the new Congo, the crisis and shortage of (fuel) petrol/gas because the shortage did happen in 2001, among the other important elements that was vital to this story.

Belinda: What significant impact has it had in terms of shaping different narratives about the DRC since it was released?

Djo: We had a couple of screenings in Congo, and had close to 300/400 people and of course, we were nervous and not sure. But the response was like wow, this is us and it was like have something where you can recognise yourself. The film opened at the Durban film festival (2011) which was the official African premiere and it was the same. It was a really, really big success and people took ownership of that and the young people were saying how proud they were to have a film about themselves. Also, I think this is the first time, they may see a film where the people look like them and at the same time, it is like an art house movie – it has entertainment and is directed by an African director, with the same level/standard of an international film. The reception has been great.

Belinda: Why the name Viva Riva!? Djo: (Laughs) the salsa bit is very important in Congo and the term Viva, Viva La Monica, which is a popular band in theCongo and it’s a reference to Salsa. So I picked the name Viva because it is a way of praising the sense of freedom

Belinda: I understand you come from a documentary background. I think it is fair to ask how you were able to marry a documentary background, art house and entertainment. Was it very challenging to approach the issues you bring to the fore in the film?

Djo: It was a challenge because for me, when we look at the Congo, we don’t have a cinema, we have a high level of illiteracy in the country and making a film, you want to focus on the issues and elements for the art house and at the same time, you want it to be accessible. That was the reason why I chose the genre of the film. To achieve the art house vision, it was important for it to be close to a documentary. So, it is like a thriller but in a documentary context. So we shot in Kinshasa in the mode of a documentary/style. We went on location and shot the city based on how it was. It was really delicate to balance. It was kind of a film noir vision and at the same time, an approach/take on reality.



Belinda: Viva Riva! has been described as “a tough, sturdy thriller, centred around a small-time hustler called Riva (Patsha Bay), who shows up in the fuel-starved big city with a truck of petrol he’s liberated from his Angolan gangster employers” why did you want to use the metaphor of fuel/petroleum, the lack of it and huge hunger that people have for it as the basis of your film?

Djo: Wow! That’s a question no one has ever asked me. (Laughter) I mean, there was a shortage of gas in Kinshasa in 2001, and there was also one in Zimbabwe. When there is a shortage of gas, everybody is affected because they feel trapped and when you have fuel, you can go anywhere.  So, you are kind of like in a prison in your own country. And certainly, Gas is so important that I would compare it to drug addicts. If they don’t have it, suddenly, that hunger you are talking about becomes some sort of a crisis. This is also the way to link all the stories together because everybody is kind of in the same problem. When you talk about a city and when a city is functional…not having gas can show how dysfunctional the city can be and on a bigger scale, it will show you how people can get greedy and fight for the same thing. (Hunger in society for gas could also be a hunger for change)

Belinda: It has also been described as a “gory, fast-paced gangster movie that gives a unique insight into Kinshasa’s ruthless criminal underworld.” We know about war and the reign of terror dished out by rebels on innocent civilians but we often don’t hear the narrative of violence within the scope of ongoing day-to-day life in Kinshasa. What was it about the violence and pain that we as human beings inflict on each other that you wanted to examine?

Djo: In addition to the gas story, I wanted to explore the effects of capitalism and the violence that happens in Kinshasa and in the Congo. It is a violence which is directly driven by a greed for minerals. In the civil war, for example, like the uprising that you have seen in the Arab world, it is about internal and external forces fighting against the west. In that sense, what I wanted to say about Kinshasa in the story – my tone and intention was ultimately to say Congo has a negative image. It is time to make something different and tell a different story. I want to talk about reality. So what I did was to go to the people’s level and talk about them. People have a life in Congo, every aspect of life and the life goes on and they manage to survive. But also, the violence is a way to depict… I mean…if people think capitalism is good, go to Congo, go and see the effect.

Belinda: What authenticity were you aiming to bring to the screen about ordinary life on the streets of Kinshasa?

Djo: I wanted to emphasise how people manage top cope with everything.  The film also has humour and you can see that people have desires and go about on a day to day basis and deal with all of that.

Belinda: Now you also have one scene where an Angolan is looking down on a Congolese.  Now this is one topic we as Africans are uncomfortable talking about. We will gladly talk about western colonisers but we don’t talk about the fact that we also look down on each other. Why did you want to address that issue?

Djo: Well, because we don’t talk about it and we don’t talk about ourselves and to be honest, it is very important to raise these issues. In my country where I see the UN mission, which also has many Africans, the attitude there and hierarchy is also questioning what it means to be a Pan-Africanist and be African. There is a racist attitude that we see elsewhere with white people and it is worse because they are Africans and I think all that is part of underdevelopment. The racism that we have among ourselves, the lack of empathy that we have among ourselves and the lack of everything. It is also a question of society. The film is not just about entertainment. It is also a mirror on what the society is.

Belinda: Is it too early to say that with the work you are now doing on the ground that a cultural renaissance is on the horizon?

Djo: Oh that’s too early because it is currently on the individual level and to talk about a renaissance you need to have different elements that are coming together and people coming together and pushing it…but I would love to have a renaissance but let’s see realistically if that will happen.


To be continued…


Viva Riva! is currently out on DVD



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