VIVA RIVA! opens in Berkeley and San Francisco
This jury is still out on the first feature film to come out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in twenty years, “VIVA RIVA!,” opening Friday, June 24, 2011, at Landmark Theatres: the Lumiere in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Produced and directed by veteran filmmaker and insider, Djo Tunda Wa Munga, I am not sure why the film is so bloody, so full of violence—if “VIVA RIVA!” is a travelogue then one might think multiple times before visiting the DRC, unless one is going to work. Most audiences are familiar with the international exploitation of mineral resources in this Central African nation: blood diamonds. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s "Ruined," teaches us the cost of war on black women: body and spirit, as Congolese sage, artist Samba Ngo sings about blood cell phones—yet, Munga’s “VIVA RIVA!,” adds yet another layer of complicity. What is the director saying about the Democratic Republic of the Congo in his first feature?
In an interview (broadcast this week, June 23-24 wandaspicks.asmnetwork.org), he tells me he was not looking at models rather at film as art, a craft driven by story. He says he wanted to tell a story relative to the Congolese experience presently—so he drapes whores in ceremonial masks, not to make the circumstances which leave these women no alternative, any less tragic, just a little sugar to make reality a little easier for audiences to swallow.
Satan walks in Kinshasa. His name is Cesar and he wears a white suit and a Panama hat. He is alive and well-fed with the blood of the guilty; he is unstoppable –or at least it feels this way.
When the film ends one is filled with questions. Who is Riva? Was his life completely pointless? Are there people like him in the world, people who make so little impact—use such a small amount of space in the grand scheme of things, it is as if they never existed?
Nothing is sacred here and almost everything is for sale— one cannot take anything into the fire, so everything is negotiable: values, principles, faith.
In the heart of this thriller, Blaxploitation —Kinshasa style—“Viva Riva!,” we meet a likable crook, Riva (Patsha Bay). Riva loves the whores, befriends the street kids and has no patience for honor among thieves. After a big job, he returns home where he is treated like royalty in the bustling urban center –the medium of exchange oil as in petrol or gasoline. He brings in a huge truck full and its owner is turning over grave sites looking for him. The chase is brutal, which is reason enough for the rating, mature and adult, but the idea that life is so cheap—that gasoline is worth more than human beings is such a global phenomena especially when one is black. The blacker the berry the more easily crushed and crushed it is as the grape vat become ripe with red wine.
The protagonist, Riva, doesn’t have a family, and when he hits town he grabs his running buddy, snatches him from his domicile and the two men party hard—liquor and women. That first night Riva falls for a femme fatal, lithe, light and dangerously attached to the local thug, “Nora” (actress Manie Malone). Viva Riva is a Carmen with a male protagonist—like Shakespeare, Munga’s “Hamlet” is haunted by ghosts—his dead brother’s and parent’s who heap blame on his already tortured soul. Riva’s Kinshasa is a place where even though your troubles are all the same, one can drown them in someone else’s glass (“Cheers”).
Maybe that’s the trouble here, everyone knows everyone’s name, which means no one can hide and the underground scene . . . if it’s as scary as the street scene Riva runs through, then one hasn’t a chance.
Riva is spirit, a touchstone, an egungun as he walks toward the other side. No life he touches is ever the same. I never thought about Robert Johnson’s entourage. Riva has one too . . . everyone he touches has dues to pay. Nothing is free, especially happiness.
The story has few heroes--likable characters, yes, like Riva, Nora to an extent, Riva's friends, and a little boy--a street kid, Riva befriends. Perhaps with everything to lose one can only win. Is this the story VIVA RIVA! tells?
The producer of "Congo in Four Acts," a quartet of short films that exposed the distressing reality of every day life in the Congo, says he hopes with VIVA RIVA! he has the start of what he calls “New Wave of Congolese Cinema.” In Lingala with English subtitles, Munga lets American audiences know who his audience is and that isn’t us. Nonetheless the European trained cinematographer draws a thin line between western expectation and African reality.
The acting is superb and the look of the film rich in texture and color. Kinshasa is a musical city and the film’s score expresses the spirit of a young city trying to leave a difficult past. Composer Cyril Atef (CongopunQ) celebrates the diversity of Congolese music with AfroPop tracks from contemporary artists ranging from Flamme Kapaya, Papy Mbavu, and Radioclit along with popular songs from the 70s by Franklin Boukaka, Franco and Manu Dibango. Visit http://www.musicboxfilms.com/viva-riva
Photos: Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna), Nora (Manie Malone), The Angolans, Director Djo Tunda Wa Munga with Marlene Longange and Hoji Fortuna.