Viva Riva!by Kavish Chetty / 06.10.2011
I have developed a taste for flesh and so here I cannibalise our young to make my point. In Mahala’s previous coverage of Viva Riva, Colin Macrae speaks of director Djo Tunda Wa Munga as “an African Tarantino“. Interestingly, not the African Tarantino, but an African Tarantino – marking him indefinitely as one amongst many potential Africans who might have that lusted-after medal pinned to their lapels (“good job, old chap”). I can hear the distant echoes of Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o grunting with displeasure. Listen carefully and you will hear them too: they have a vexed six-decade history of irritation inside them. Sometime around the 1960s, the western middle-classes developed African (and other ex-colonial) literatures as an object of desire (“look what the natives made, honey!”). It was an inevitable recolonisation of African culture that has its legacy everywhere – see the sweating tourist with his camera slung vigilantly over sunburned neck at the African market, shopping amongst cultural relics for a mantelpiece ornament, or a Congolese mask which complements his Tibetan rugs. In trying to appreciate these foreign literary artefacts, western critics would always reduce and compare. The New York Times wrote of Midnight’s Children, “a continent finding its voice” (really?). Elsewhere you might hear of Africa producing ‘its James Joyce’ or ‘its Anne Frank’. The logic is what we might call stage-ist: history is viewed as a linear sequence in which the modern “West” is the apex, and all ex-colonial cultures are lagging behind, slowly lurching towards the desirable modernity of their old colonizers. This motivates the endless comparison: We, the West, have our James Joyce already – 90 yeas ago, in fact – and now you can have yours. You are condemned, by this haughty judgment, to emulation alone.
This threat is there in the poisoned compliment of “African Tarantino” – yes, you have raised your culture into a product which is intelligible and respectable, but only by my standards, motherfucker. It is also a threat which has its strongest chokehold on African cinema. But does this logic hold? Does it not point to something deeper – the repressed western inheritance of modern African “culture” – which sets alight the question that all liberals fear: is it impossible to produce an “authentic” African cinema or book because such an authenticity has never existed in the first place? The book and the film, these are irresistibly the largesse of colonial contact. They bring with them whole ideological cores about how culture can be transmitted (should be transmitted). So when we mine all the way to the naked structure of a film, we discover that it can only be ‘western’, and that at its summit the greatest independence of African cinema achievable can only be as a ‘hybrid’ thing. Charitably it might be said to ‘champion the liminal space’, but its detractors are armed to charge of a “schizophrenia”. You have become me already, just not enough. What can actually be done about this? At the bare minimum, African film-makers have to use a technological medium that was not their own (the camera). At the bare minimum they have to borrow from a vocabulary of techniques that was not their own. It seems that all attempts to locate ‘authenticity’ are doomed to hang, because the very method of telling an African story is itself not African (compare this to those nostalgic and lavished precolonial ‘oral traditions’).
It is possible – even if many would loathe the suggestion – that this points us toward a new universalism that was created by modernity. I would usually interject here on Theodor Adorno’s thesis on the “Culture Industry”, but I’ve delayed the substantive review for too long (you are welcome to hunt it up; it’s a fascinating and ever-relevant read). But of course, this ‘universalism’ is precisely predicated on a violent disavowal and invalidation of old native ways of being. Capitalism conditions whatever possibilities of expression remain – if you dislike my Marxist perspective, you are cordially invited to kiss my ass.
The Democratic Republic of Congo hasn’t had an international staging of any of their films in 25 years. Appropriately then, Viva Riva! contains a quarter-century’s worth of repressed misogyny and violence that had just been dying to escape the borders – and, not accidentally, affirm most stereotypes we have of Congo (and its brother ‘the Congo’, the proverbial heart of darkness to its West) as a corrupt, chaotic carnival of torture and developmental failure (seriously, pardon the alliteration). In its representation in this film, you might even go as far as to lavish it with that third-world superlative “vibrant”, although wear a bulletproof vest if you do it anywhere near me. What’s most remarkable is that it took them 25 years to get a picture out, and in one film, they’ve made most of our film industry look like its run by a team possessing the collective intellect of your average copywriter. Viva Riva! gets the ‘genre picture’ right on target. For comparative purposes I would choose one of our latest local blockbusters, How to Steal 2 Million. That film is a ham-fisted half-noir piece of shit, which inelegantly grafts a bunch of American clichés into South Africa in a way that is just bankrupt with impossibility. Viva Riva! on the other hand makes its action-thriller format breathe. I was entertained, which is the first half of cinematic joy, and my expectations were almost constantly subverted, which is really the second. Another critic – whose brother works as a firefighter in Kinshasa – made the (oh, maybe a little controversial and yet accurate) remark that where the aestheticisation of violence is always stylized in American cinema, it seems strangely at home in Congo. Here violence, of which there are oildrums in quantity, is not beautiful, but comically real. Because, hell, this shit could probably go down in Africa.
Okay, let’s get real for a minute: it probably wouldn’t. This film borrows heavily from an overblown action cinema heritage. The protagonist Riva is a womanizer, lover of money, double-crosser, asshole and loves to party and fuck whores; if he lived on the Flats, he’d be called a ‘Jolletjie’. The chief love interest, Nora, is a slim and sexual male fantasy, unhappily married to a major gangster, which cranks up her desirability for an idealist like Riva all the way to 11. The stakes are several gallons of petrol, during a Congolese petrol crisis, which Riva stole from some Angolans and is planning to sell in Kinshasa, before kicking back and living the life. And the jeopardy is these same Angolans, tracking Riva ruthlessly to kill him and get back their petrol. If Riva’s seduction of Nora is a template for how to impress a Congolese broad, then the trick is basically consensual rape: harass them, give them unwanted kisses, show up at their bathroom window, give them some good head and – Abracadabra, bitch! – you’ll be getting it reverse cowgirl style in the bathtub. Misogyny is this film’s bread and butter. Actually, sex is all over the place, whether harem-bound, lesbian or implied foursomes. During one particularly erotic encounter, a moistened dame in the row behind me purred “oh, viva Riva!” The sex is nearly as explicit as the violence (no cocks: cocks whether erect or inert are the last anxiety of our culture). In fact the film opens on a telling note. When I saw Nora pulling aside her panties, doing a half-squat in a field and pissing out a stream of steaming, golden urine, I knew what kind of party I had been invited to. Should’ve bought a trench-coat.
One of the greatest achievements of Viva Riva! is that it takes tenured cinematic traditions and works them in so seamlessly that you don’t feel barked at by your critical faculties, telling you: “this is cheap mimicry and nothing more.” It has an enjoyable, fast-paced energy, the almost slapstick extremity of a Machete, constant reversals of fortune – don’t get me wrong, it is definitely working within the rules, but at least bending them if not shattering them, and at least bending them muscularly.
What remains then is to do justice to this film by bookmarking some of its finer moments. Immediate accolade for most awesome actor goes to the serial Angolan bad-ass Cesar (Hoji Fortuna). This guy is such a piss-take of a character: he walks with a constant stoop like a buzzard, is dressed in ivory-white pimp gear with a pair of khaki sneaks (no predictable crocodile skin for this dude); he cuts an incompetent and yet brutal villain, very amusingly portrayed. Elsewhere, the director has a George Martin indifference to his characters, slaughtering them whimsically – and, admirably, not even lingering on the deaths of the more important cast; they are just inconsequential collections of plasma for his wholly violent narrative. The film is well-paced, buoyed by its action and sex, and nowhere else are you going to hear the rather sickening quotation, “I will carve out her vagina, cut out her ovaries and feed them to the dogs.” Or see a tortured man get punched so viciously in the bollocks, any man who didn’t belong to cinematic fiction would die of neurogenic shock. Yeah, the Congolese go straight for the genitals, apparently. They don’t stall the inevitable.
So, in the final analysis Viva Riva! is hugely entertaining – and definitely hugely problematic: I expect many an Africanist to justifiably point out that its women are punching bags and that what little of a tourism industry the DRC has left will dry up immediately after the world gets hold of this. But the director has a cynical reply about his responsibility to his state and the necessity of all this brutality: “My society is very macho,” he says. “My society has a problem with prostitution, the family has collapsed.” (Sir, your conservatism is showing. Please put it away). Still, all reports of this place are as a war-torn zone of misery, complete with collapsed economy and deep anomie. Viva Riva! is an important stimulus to revive the ways we think about how Africa produces cinema and how it deals with the problem of authenticity, or just to phrase it more accurately, how to ‘keep it real’. And of course, it’s just plain fucking fun to watch.