MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: ‘Viva Riva!’ … think ‘Harder They Come’ in Africa

Remember the jolt of excitement you experienced watching “The Harder They Come,” “City of God” and “Amores Perros” for the first time? How raw depictions of violence, sex, corruption and poverty flowed organically from the directors’ choices of actors, locations and music, whose singularity couldn’t have been faked or synthesized?

These stories may have been fictional, but your unfamiliarity with the streets, faces and emotions on display – the shockingly meager value put on human life — made it seem as if you’d pulled off on the wrong freeway ramp and, within moments, were surrounded by abandoned cars and buildings, gang-bangers and crack whores.

That’s how you’ll feel, again, watching “Viva Riva!” If the title of Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s debut feature suggests comedy or madcap adventure, it’s worth knowing ahead of time that “Viva Riva!,” while undeniably exciting and occasionally funny, is more likely to elicit gasps of horror than laughter from audiences.

The movie is set in Kinshasa, the capital and largest city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With a population of 10 million people, it’s roughly the same size of Rio de Jainero and Mexico City. It is 20 times larger than Kingston, Jamaica, where most of “The Harder They Come” was staged. As the movies made in these cities suggest, the disparity between wealthy and impoverished residents is huge, and crime is virtually out of control in the poorer districts.

What most Americans know of Kinshasa can be summarized in two words: Ali, Foreman.

Although a poster from that monumental sporting event, Rumble in the Jungle, hangs from the wall of a police official’s office, in “Viva Riva!,” Munga doubts the boxing match had any lasting significance on the residents of Kinshasa. Even though an injury to Foreman pushed the fight back a month, very little money from foreign investors, fans and the media found its way into the hands of people who weren’t friends of the ruthless dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The country had only been independent for 14 years, he reminds, and was called Zaire. (In 1997, during the First Congo War, forces loyal to Laurent-Désiré Kabila ousted Mobutu, and the country’s name reverted to Democratic Republic of the Congo.)  

The events described in “Viva Riva!” reflect the turmoil and uncertainty that has kept the DRC from progressing for most of the last two decades.

“Over the past 20 years, Kinshasans have lived in bedlam,” Munga asserts, “through every kind of spirit-crushing experience imaginable … war, crime, corruption, food and energy shortages … poverty and the breakup of the family structure. Yet, their clocks still keep on ticking and life goes on.”

In an effort to escape the crippling poverty of his homeland, the movie’s protagonist, Riva (Patsha Bay, a musician in his acting debut) — like so many other Conglolese men and women – crossed the southern border to Angola. Riva became an outlaw, involved in all sorts of illegal activities, including smuggling.

After a 10-year absence, Riva steals a truckload of barrels containing gasoline from his boss and hauls them by boat and truck to Kinshasa, which is in the throes of a fuel shortage. Needless to say, this show of independence isn’t appreciated by the gangster, Cesar (Hoji Fortuna). He follows Riva to city, where he plans on recouping the small fortune in gasoline and make his protégée pay for his poor judgment.

“I see Riva as a good guy, who wanted to return home with lots of money and be seen as a hero,” said Munga, in L.A. at the start of a publicity tour. “Because he was involved in an accident in which his brother was killed, his family rejected him. It put him on the outskirts of society and turned him into an outlaw.

“In Angola, Riva learned out to survive as an outlaw … fighting in the war, smuggling diamonds. If he could return home as a hero, it meant he had been able to maintain his humanity.”

In this way, Riva was similar to Ivanhoe Martin, the Johnny-Too-Bad protagonist of “The Harder They Come”; drug kingpin Li’l Ze, in “City of God”; and dog-fighter Octavio, in “Amores Perros.” Although his parents continue to hold a grudge against him, Riva spreads the money he’s been given as an advance widely throughout his old neighborhood. In his mind, he can win more friends with free drinks and handouts than by threatening people with lethal force. Among those he impresses with his generosity and cocky demeanor is the spectacularly beautiful and sexy Nora (Manie Malone), girlfriend of a slick and wealthy Kinshasa gangster.

“Nora comes from an educated, middle-class background,” Munga explains. “She wanted more, though, and used her beauty to get it. She got on the wrong path and, eventually, couldn’t get off it.”

When Cesar and his henchmen arrived in Kinshasa, they don’t expect to have much trouble finding the fuel and punishing Riva. Information that can’t be bought, they assume, can be beaten out of those hoping to shelter Riva.

What Cesar doesn’t take into account, however, is how thoroughly corrupt are the local officials. Life may be cheap in Congo, but staying out of jail can be expensive. Every time they’ve struck a deal with a police or military official, someone else sticks a hand out, demanding his cut. Neither do they expect to find prostitutes, priests and other potential allies so willing to work both sides of the fence. Their duplicity allows Riva to maintain a healthy distance between himself and his former boss. The same thing happens when Nora’s boyfriend threatens to feed Riva to the crocodiles.

The final series of confrontations are as intricately choreographed as they are bloody. It’s left for a street urchin, who befriends Riva after failing to sell him a stolen cell phone, to demonstrate just how resilient are Congo’s poor.

Munga’s succeeded against the odds, as well.

The Congo’s cinematic history is almost non-existent, except as it applied to the Belgian colonists. In fact, black Africans living under the Belgian flag were forbidden from watching movies made in Europe and American. The official reason, believe it or not, was that the uneducated locals couldn’t distinguish between fact and fiction and the confusion could lead to mental problems. It’s more likely that Belgian officials feared images of blacks enjoying freedom and democracy elsewhere could stir up the natives, as it were.

In the 1940s, Roman Catholic priests created a school to teach the fundamentals of moviemaking to African students, if only to reduce the costs of turning out educational and propaganda material on their own. (In one, a cartoon antelope was used to teach viewers religious values.) Wars and civil unrest would curtail later attempts to rekindle plans for a film industry. 

In 1987, Mwenze Ngangura shot “La Vie Est Belle” in the Congo, but it was a Belgian production in French. “Viva Riva!” is the first Congolese feature to find distribution in the U.S. It’s also the first to be made in Lingala, a Bantu dialect, which is dominant in western Congo.

“To keep true to our contract of staying close to reality, we needed to use Lingala,” said Munga. “You can hear some French and English phrases, but that’s normal anywhere. Besides French, the Congo has four official indigenous languages: Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba.

“We have 400 different tribes in the Congo … 400 different ways of thinking. And, there are more than 200 ‘living’ languages.”

There are no acting schools in the Congo, so Munga was required to cast a wide net for local talent and find foreign-based Africans for the primary roles. For most members of the cast, it was their first film credit.

Munga, who was sent to Belgium at 10 to study art, said it was important for him to paint a realistic portrait of contemporary Kinshasa, especially the nightlife scene. Conveniently, Riva spends a lot of money in the city’s nightclubs and brothels.

Some of the scenes shot there are surprisingly explicit, considering the ban on depictions of sexuality and nudity. (They’re racy, even by western standards.) The fact that Kinshasa doesn’t have any movie theaters should, however, keep Munga out of trouble.

The nightclub backdrop also allowed Muga to introduce music that represents a cross-section of popular tastes in Kinshasa. Composer Cyril Atef is a percussionist and leader of CongopunQ, a group that merges traditional Congo rhythms with early punk. The soundtrack also is heavy on guitar-based jazz, rumba, “ghetto-pop” and “afro-dance” material. Among the singers represented is Franklin Boukaka, who, in 1972, was shot and killed by military police, during a political protest in Brazzaville. 

The soundtrack from “The Harder They Come” introduced America to reggae and such artists as Jimmy Cliff, Toots & the Maytals, the Slickers and the Melodians. African popular is a diverse as the continent, itself, and extremely accessible these days. It deserves to be sampled, at least.
“Kinshasa is a musical city,” Munga adds. “For the movie to be organic, then, the soundtrack had to capture its pulse of life.”

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Chloë Sevigny

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~ Dallas Sonnier