On a lazy Thursday afternoon in West Hollywood at the corner of Chic and Don’t Sweat It, I had the pleasure of speaking with Djo Tunda Wa Munga, the director of Viva Riva! His film is overtly original with shockingly fresh perspectives on action and passion.
The man himself is quite the silhouette to the lasting image of his film. He is convivial even before the interview begins. In fact, talking with him is like chatting with an excited ‘mate about the one thing, not only shared in common, but truly loved by you both. In this case, perhaps he loves it a teeny bit more than you.
Summer Holliday: On coming of age in a country where cinema is limited, how does he attest the accomplishment of his first feature length film?
Djo Tunda Wa Munga: Early study in classical art school encouraged by a hardworking patriarch allowed for the natural evolution of innate talent. Having the vision of an architect, from humble beginnings in documentary film, it was evident that the ability of foresight allowed the grand scheme of a neo-realized product. With a fierce love of country, organization, careful preparation, and attention to the necessities of the industry and society at large, common themes were associated with African influenced cultures to produce a reality that is rarely found in mainstream cinema.
SH: What influenced the decision of titling the film “Viva Riva”?
DTWM: The prominence of salsa culture among Congolese people in the 70s and 80s was equal across social lines and was embraced for its solidarity. This is in contrast to popular North American culture of the time. This influence has remained constant in contemporary society.
SH: What inspired the character of Riva and the message sent of Africa?
DTWM: The history of the last twenty years in the city of Kinshasa has created a need for a character with confidence, flamboyance and a self-destructive nature as a result of the harsh terms on which people continue to live daily. Stories of Mbutu security guards with swimming pools filled with crocodiles are childhood fables. Violence holds an understood certainty and requires a brutal elegance. In this world, prostitution is a commonality and integral part of life.
SH: How many drafts of the story did it take to reach the end result?
DTWM: Thirty to forty drafts are quite possible, allowing that the final product was seven years in the making. Re-writes were prepared during filming, at times preceding a scene. The concept was an ongoing process; as varying ideas were understood, past drafts were refreshed. At one point prior to filming, writing stopped for two years.
SH: How did you establish shots for the film?
DTWM: Congoles locals were far more relaxed about participating with the production than was anticipated. They enjoyed working with the crew and benefited from a better daily wage and fewer hours. Authorities were welcoming and influenced a congenial production.
SH: What influenced the shot list and other production choices most?
DTWM: Shooting in the Congo is very hot and humid. There were no labs available locally and shots were shipped overseas to print. Still cameras were used for their aesthetic of a bigger window which allowed for more light. However, that required sound quality matches to faster moving lenses.
SH: Given the historical treatment of same-sex couples in Africa, how do you equate the use of lesbians in this arena?
DTWM: In the time since the original script was completed, there have been societal changes in the recognition of lesbians. The image portrayed was not intended to send a message. It is an interpretation of an observation. Given the negative connotation of homosexuality, there is a freedom in the expression.
SH: What was the budget/ total cost for the film? Financing?
DTWM: 1.8 million EUR. Funds were distributed into logistics and often supplied by television as well as companies represented from Belgium, Europe and Africa.
SH: How did you conceptualize the film’s strong sensuality and what inspired the use of French actress Manie Malone?
DTWM: The importance of maintaining a clear correlation to reality intensified the truth in the use of sexuality. Because of the prevalence of prostitution, there is less inhibition when directly referencing nudity. In conjunction, reality of life was much darker than cinema and the overall effect was censored by an intended mask of creativity; thus, leading to the casting of a foreign actress out of concern for Congolese women and the absence of a barrier between the intended performance and daily life.
SH: Have there been specific films and/or directors to influence this production?
DTWM: Specifically, no one director or film inspired this film. Growing-up as an appreciator of cinema, certain directors held the power to instill awe. Of note, a Japanese film directed after the demolition brought-on by World War II, involving a gun, a woman and the policeman who lost the gun represented the awakening of a new landscape for cinema. Movies from the 80s including those from Hong Kong and director Martin Scorcese revealed cinematic possibilities, but the total process is personal.
SH: Can the inspiration for the intimate and sexual scenes between Riva and Nora be defined?
DTWM: Beyond the reality of desire it is difficult to specify. Homes in Africa have bars on the window that make traditional expressions of romance difficult i.e., singing below the windowsill. By paying respect to a certain natural humility and research into varying facets of sexuality, the artistic envelope was pushed to reveal a masculine character pursuant of pleasing a woman.
SH: How long did shooting last?
DTWM: 37 days.
SH: Returning to music, which has a strong presence in the film, explain the premise for the varying styles and inter-national trends used?
DTWM: Different phases of Congolese music were showcased including: traditional, erotisme and Afrikaan music to heighten the fantasy. Returning to the impact of Latin America, traditional Rhumba was used. The incorporation of an international soundtrack was another contrast to popular film soundtracks of the North-East. The singular most note-worthy style is Ndombolo, the landmark beat of the Congo.
SH: Future projects?
DTWM: A Congolese-Chinese thriller about a Chinese Deputy journeying to the Congo in search of a Chinese gangster would be great. However, in a country like the Congo, a gangster is more powerful than ever.