Screaming Men: New Voices in African Cinema

Viva Riva! was the first major feature film from the DRC.

by Itay Sharon

Most depictions of Africa, particularly those parts still riven by conflict, fall into the poverty porn category. A welcome antidote to all the depictions of hellish war and crippling poverty, though, is the increasing presence of African cinema on the world stage, often from surprising places. Cinema gives us a different depiction of Africa, one which can eventually replace the mainstream representations that appear so exploitative. They can also play a part in educating an unknowing public about the reality of lives in poor places. Two films making their way around the festival circuit do this in different ways, one for the Congo and the other for Chad – and represent alternative paths that African cinema might take going forward.

Viva Riva! (Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2010)

Introduced by the director Djo Munga as “The first major feature film to come out of the Congo”, Viva Riva! is obviously influenced by Hollywood, while retaining distinctly Congolese flavours. Riva (Patsha Bay), charismatic, charming and wealthy from selling oil, is on the run from his former Angolan employers. The tensions between the DRC and Angola, recently centred on oil-disputes, are in full evidence, primarily through racism: an Angolan gangster taunts his nemesis by saying: “Congolese nigger…your country is the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen. Maybe you should have remained colonised”.

What’s particularly refreshing is the way in which the problems of development are dealt with in a matter-of-fact way. Electricity cuts out at the worst moments, prompting audience laughter rather than pity. Kinshasa is depicted as a largely lawless society where everyone and everything has a price. Army generals, police officers and the clergy are all as corrupt as one another, and everyone manipulates in order to survive. Inequality, the immense status material wealth confers and the fluidity of class are all depicted in broad brush strokes:  ‘The strongest man in Kinshasa’, a local gangster named Azor, lives in a mansion surrounded by his fleet of cars, army of bodyguards and a superiority complex rooted squarely in his wealth. He refers to Riva as a “peasant” only to find himself broke and powerless soon after, for oil is king in a country that has no royalty, and his success is dependent on his patronage by others.

So far, so individual. But things begin to fall apart: brawling, shooting, and lots more violence and sex follow, but the film loses its focus and identity and isn’t sure where it wants to end up. One scene towards the end that divides me is when Riva finally goes to see his parents and a row ensues over Riva’s disappearance 10 years prior and the death of Riva’s brother. On the one hand, I think Munga leaves this so late in the film that it almost seems out of context and its impact is minimised, but on the other, you realise this is Munga venting his frustration at years of civil war that he largely blames on his parents’ generation. You feel that Viva Riva! could have benefited significantly from dealing with this issue earlier in the film and given it more than just a passing glance. This point is not fully explored enough to make any lasting impact.

Viva Riva! was a big winner at the African Academy Movie Awards recently and has been warmly received by critics, but I am not as convinced. It could have been so much more.

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