Viva Riva!

Can someone please tell me why we are still obsessing about crime fiction and film from places like Scandinavia when there is so much interesting material coming out of Africa and Asia?

I ask this because last week I saw the 2010 Congolese crime film, Viva Riva! and thought it was great.

Viva Riva! is set in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The nearly three-decade rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, Africa’s most corrupt despot (and that’s saying something) is over, and the city is recovering from brutal street fighting in the aftermath of the disputed 2006 elections.

Small-time gangster, Riva, has returned from neighbouring Angola with a truckload of stolen petrol. Kinshasa is in the middle of a fuel shortage. Riva and his crew aim to get rich quick by selling the lot at top dollar.

Hot on his trail is Cesar, an enforcer for the Angolan interests Riva has stolen the fuel from. Cesar wants the petrol back and proceeds to cut a bloody swathe through Kinshasa to get it. Helping Cesar is the Commandant, a female Congalese military commander whose sister is being held captive by the Angolans.

Everyone in this film is on the make, whether it’s for money, sex, food, or safety. And everyone is corrupt. The police, the military, even the local priest who negotiates to buy the fuel using the money raised from the church’s congregation. “Priests need gasoline too, alas,” he tells Riva.

Riva doesn’t care. Like Tony Montanna in the 1983 Brian De Palma classic Scarface he is prepared to do anything to get ahead and thinks nothing of complicating his problems by going after Nora, the girlfriend of Azor, one of Kinshasa’s most feared crime bosses.

Kinshasa is a sprawling, jerry built city with no power and no petrol, full of slums interspersed with areas of sun bleached French colonial architecture. Street kids play along the unpaved roads. At night the place looks incredibly dark and forbidding.

I can’t remember a city so ominously portrayed in a crime film. It reminds me of post-civil war Phnom Penh in the early nineties, only way more dangerous

Viva Riva! is not for the faint hearted. The body count is high and there are some graphic sex scenes. And while aspects of it a little clichéd, the film has an incredible energy and feel to it, helped by a fantastic African soundtrack.

The film was written and directed by Djo Munga (who cites his chief influences as Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leonne) and received 12 nominations and won 6 awards at the 7th African Movie Academy Awards in 2011, including the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography & Best Production Design.

It left me wondering how many other crime movies set in Africa are out there I’ve never heard of.

Viva Riva! is playing this coming Thursday, August 4 at 9pm as part of MIFF Crime Scene program.

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4 Responses

  1. Kinshasa is one of the craziest-arsed cities I’ve ever been to – maybe the craziest. One afternoon an angry mob gathered on the street outside the mission where myself and two mates were camped. We went out to have a look. The mob had dragged out the AMBASSADOR of the Congolese Republic (in those days the Congo was called Zaire) and beheaded him in the street. The mob was enraged because just across the Congo River in Brazzaville, when Zaire was beating the Congo Republic at half-time in a soccer game, some Congolese soldiers had invaded the pitch and one Zairean player was apparently shot. Crazy times. Mobutu was an African dictator from central casting, had a finger (or a fist) in everything, while his people were going hungry. One night we were mugged in the street by Zairean police, who turned out to be regular thieves – the Zairean coppers hadn’t been paid for months and so some were renting out their uniforms to thieves at night. We lost everything (which wasn’t much.) We ended up trying to stow away on Europe bound ships from the port, and when that didn’t work a very decent neighbourhood criminal held a benefit gig at a local nightspot – my mate played sax with a Zairean band and me and my other mate had to dance. V funny night, and a testament to the generosity of very poor people of the Zairean slums was the money raised to get us almost out of the country (we ended up in a Zairean jail for a month, and my sax playing mate used to serenade the prison warden while he ate his lunch – he eventually let us go when he realised we had no money.) It’s great to see a crime movie coming out of this part of Africa – with their mad history I hope to see many more…

    • Dave,
      Always good to have you drop by. Thanks for the great comment. I think it gives readers a bit of context to just how crazy a place Kinshasa is. I would love to know how you ended up hanging out with friendly gangsters in the Congo, but I think that’s a story for another time. Over a beer or ten. By the way one of the things that I thought was a complete riot about Viva Riva! was its depiction of some of the night spots in Kinshasa. I thought the director might have been hamming it up a bit, but listening to your story, obviously not so. In fact, he sounds like he was being positively restrained.

  2. I must be the worst dancer o the planet, and my mate wasn’t much different (my sax playing mate is something of a genius), but the local crim/nightclub owner (I think the local term was an equivalent of ‘bigshot’) was letting us sleep on the bandroom floor and feeding us (we literally had not a cent between us) but somehow in the madness that is Zairean nightlife it made sense. Kinshasa is one of the music capitals of the world – great people, great music, and lots of reasons to drink a lot and dance. Hope I can get a copy of the film on dvd, and look forward to that beer…

  3. Pingback: Crime time at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival | Pulp Curry

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