Thursday, June 23, 2011

"I end up working with all of the best actors in Kinshasa because I am the only filmmaker!" - An interview with Djo Tunda Wa Munga

Djo Munga's Viva Riva! is a striking blend of the familiar and the new. At first, it appears to be a film built from a standard thriller template – as a young criminal falls for a dangerous woman and gets in over his head with a group of violent gangsters – but the fact that the film has been made in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo gives it a bracing freshness. Munga's documentary background and love of classic cinema allows him to detail the problems facing inhabitants of Kinshasa while telling a thoroughly entertaining story, and that approach has seen his film already become an unexpected international hit. I met Djo Munga this week to talk about his hugely impressive debut.

One of the things that is always exciting about watching films from around the world is seeing a great movie come from a country that has no cinematic presence. Is there any kind of film culture in the Congo?

There was a film culture when I was a child. In the 70's I used to watch television and go to the cinema, and in my environment, my family and friends, there was talk about which films were good and things like that. Thirty years after, there is no industry of cinema of course, but there is no culture of cinema either. When I say "culture of cinema," I mean there is no sense of 'this filmmaker is good' or 'I heard about that that film,' the cultural level has disappeared. We just have television, which is all American or all Nigerian. There is no culture of cinema. I think it is very important to have a film museum, a cinémathèque, where people can go and watch the classics, and then they would learn about the history of cinema.

So how hard is it to get a film made in a country with such a limited sense of cinema?

The good thing is that, while there is no cinema, there is a high level of unemployment and people need to work. In my company, for example, the person who is behind me is a lawyer. She is a smart woman but when she finished her training there was no work. I hired her as a trainee and she started working with me – a documentary here, a documentary there – and she started to enjoy it. Many people are like that, and the advantage is that in a poor country like this one, I end up working with all of the best actors in Kinshasa because I am the only filmmaker! [laughs] I can pick anyone. Eventually we have a great time together working on this film, but it is difficult when people are starting from scratch because you have start everything from the beginning, training people and going through the basics. It is also a good rehearsal for yourself, though, because at the end of the day you know what is really necessary on a film like this. All of the crap disappears because you don't have the time or you don't have the energy.

Your background is in documentary filmmaking. Did you feel that gave you a good basis for making a fiction film, or was it a completely different challenge?

I did work in documentaries because I needed to work. When I was at film school, if somebody said I was going to work on documentaries I would have said, "Oh no, I don't want that" but it was the only job available. I worked for the BBC on a documentary called White King, Red Rubber, Black Death as a line producer, and I learned so much and had such a great time. This training really helped me as a scriptwriter, because even if you are making a fiction film you want to focus on reality. You look at reality and create characters because you see the real dynamics of society, not characters you create in your brain because you watch too many films. Coming back to the history of cinema, the first films, the classics, were films where filmmakers looked at reality to write their stories, not like now when people make movies about the movies they've seen. That was very exciting, to work in the Congo and get a grip on reality.

You're working with a mixture of non-actors and experienced actors in the film. Did you have to work with them in a different way?

No, because the professional actors we had like Hoji [Fortuna] or Manie [Malone], they hadn't done big feature films before and they were new in Kinshasa, so for them it was also the beginning. I treated everybody the same way in the workshop and rehearsal, and the energy between everybody was nice, everyone was working at the same level and it was good in that sense. That was one of the cool things about working in Kinshasa. When we were testing actors we tested some who came from Paris, and they thought, "We come from Paris, we are proper actors" but they arrived in rehearsal and had to work with these non-actors. You can't pretend, you just have to jump in and swim, and some didn't survive so that created a bond.

It would be very easy for a documentary filmmaker to go to the Congo and make a film about the tragedy of the situation there, but you have the opportunity to engage and entertain an audience while showing them what is happening in the country.

Exactly, and to create a narrative is very exciting. You want to show a city that is functioning, exciting and sexy, and you want to create that atmosphere. The politics are there but in the background, and you don't want to get into a statement, you know, because that is a trap. It's too easy to say, "Oh, Africa is terrible, blah, blah..." and we have heard that before.

You present Kinshasa as a city that has corruption at every level. Even the priest gets involved at one point.

[laughs] That's true. The question about corruption is interesting, though, because at some level of poverty corruption is just a survival mode. A guy who is a policeman and never receives a salary, what's he going to do? He's just trying to make a living, you know? Even the church, which we would say is the strongest institution, operates with humans and they also need gas, because they're part of this environment. When you get down to a very human level they are all part of the same thing and all victims of the same mechanism.

The character of César is interesting because not only is he a great character to watch, he seems to represent a deep sense of prejudice that exists between Angolans and Congolese.

I wanted to talk about the racism among Africans. When you have a meeting like the UN you see a lot of Africans there, wealthy people, but when you look at their behaviour it's funny how Africans look down on other Africans. Certainly in my country, but also when I travel. We had this great idea in the 60's and 70's of pan-Africanism, this huge, fundamental idea that we are all together, but it is different now. I wanted to depict the complete opposite, that society has broken down.

You clearly have a great love of cinema and Viva Riva! is very much in the mould of a classic genre film. What influences did you draw on?

I often talk about Sergio Leone, because he was a very important filmmaker to me, but I could also talk about Kenji Mizoguchi, the Japanese filmmaker, because of his vision of women and the corruption of society. Kurosawa is a huge filmmaker and he influenced me in the development of Viva Riva! because of he made a gangster movie with a documentary approach in Stray Dog, and it influenced me in terms of construction. But when you look at Mizoguchi, and the Japanese filmmakers in the 30's, 40's and 50's, he talks about what you see between the lines of the perfect society, the corruption and prostitution, and what you see behind the curtain. I find that really fascinating. I was talking earlier about Ken Loach, who is not a director I'm inspired by, but I love his work and I love the way his lines are really pure in his films. I also love modern directors like Tarantino. The world of cinema is my influence, and I just enjoy movies. I also love Buñuel but I don't think my work is like Buñuel in any way [laughs].

It's interesting that you should mention Mizoguchi as an influence because he was a great feminist director and you have two key female characters in this film. Given the terrible situation for women in the Congo, was it important for you to have strong women in your film?

Yes it was. Of course, the situation of women is quite terrible in the Congo, but on the other side we never talk about how modern Congolese women are. I'm telling you, if these women were not there the country would be in much worse shape than it is now. That's what I wanted to represent, especially with the Commandant. She's just a regular woman who happens to be in the army, but for her loyalty to her sister she is ready to do whatever is necessary and she finds a way to manoeuvre in that society. Another character that we never talk about is Madame Edo, who owns the brothel. She has a kind of bond with Riva, a maternal link that has replaced his real mother. One of the things I like in Kinshasa is that it is still an open-minded society, even if it is a bit confused, and I wanted to show that through the sex in the movie.

The film is very frank in the way it depicts sex.

I think we have this very straightforward, open approach in Kinshasa. It can be quite crude, in a way, but it's very direct. So it's part of the culture, and if I had made that film in Mbasi, which is a city in the east, maybe the approach would be more...I don't know...more "Swedish" [laughs]. It would be more reserved, but in Kinshasa we're very direct.

What do you think the success of this film can do for cinema in the Congo? Do you think other filmmakers will be inspired to make films there?

It has already done amazing things for the Congo. The fact that we have been to Toronto and Berlin as the first Congolese film, and also that the film has been picked up for distribution in the US, Canada, England, Australia, Germany,'s already huge. It will open in ten African nations in September and it has already won six African movie awards. In Africa that means a lot because these awards are usually dominated by English-speaking countries – South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya – so for a French-speaking film to win the major awards it says that this is a change.

What are you planning next?

I am trying to make a thriller set in Kinshasa with a Chinese detective, a Chinese-Congolese story. I don't know if you know this, but in the last twenty years China has been the biggest migration into Africa, in terms of businesses and people, so I think that will be an interesting story to talk about. I know that the western media always depict China with this negative image, but the reality is much more complex than that.

Reality always is.

[Laughs] That's right, absolutely.