True grit in Kinshasa's streets

Since seeing Retribution and How to Steal Two Million, both engaging and well-made South African thrillers, I’ve been mulling over the question of what we might call “local content” in South African movies.

After the premiere of How to Steal Two Million at the Durban International Film Festival, a colleague from another paper simply dismissed the film as an imitation of American movies—as, basically, an American story given a South African veneer. I wanted to defend How to Steal Two Million because I’d liked it as a movie, as a gripping and strongly plotted story, but I had to admit that it didn’t feel particularly South African except in that it was an American genre narrative transplanted into a South African context.

Now this is a tricky argument to pursue, because it’s not as though we can set quotas or percentages of how much “local content” a movie has to possess to be called truly or fully South African. How would we do such a thing, even if we had some irreproachable committee able to put a number to quantities of local content? South African actors, 10%; South African locations, another 10%; use of South African languages, a mere 5% — Does How to Steal Two Million then come out at 25% local? And how does that help, anyway?

I don’t think it’s useful to fly a nationalist flag, either, and to argue that there’s some mysterious essence of South Africa that has to be encoded in a film’s story and/or look in order to qualify for the “100% South African” rosette. Moreover, it makes no ultimate difference to how good a film is: you could find any number of movies that are South African through and through and still crap. South Africanness as such is no guarantee of anything except South Africanness.

Set firmly in its place
Then I saw Congolese writer-director Djo Tunda wa Munga’s movie Viva Riva! and later discussed it with the director (a dialogue published in these pages). Viva Riva! makes a fascinating counterpoint to movies such as Retribution and How to Steal Two Million, because it’s also a thriller, with some of the elements all thrillers have in common, but it’s set very firmly in its context—Kinshasa. That is to say, it feels embedded in and able to draw richly upon the life of a specific place, and thereby to infuse the film with what film theorist André Bazin called “social truth”.

We could argue, too, of course, about what such a “social truth” might be. You could say crime is a “social truth” in South Africa, so a movie dealing with crime, even in the form of a stylised thriller, is presenting that truth to us. But that may be a fairly abstract, as it were, kind of truth. Leftists used to insist that the “social truth” that had to be shown was the truth of oppression, of class conflict and so on, but that’s also rather abstract unless cinematic ways are found to give it a deeply felt and visually compelling life—that is, to narrativise it.

I’d argue that the “social truth” with which Viva Riva! engages, the truth it depicts and uses to propel its narrative, exists first on the level of texture, feel and look. We see a lot of Kinshasa in this tale of a man who grabs a consignment of petrol, illegally smuggled from Angola, and plans to sell it in the petrol-starved capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, because there are some murderous Angolan gangsters after him, plus some local Kinshasa heavies, so the titular Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) is perpetually on the run, half on the defence and half on the attack, ducking and diving throughout the film.

At the same time, Riva is living off cash advances from a dealer in illegal goods, who keeps telling him how the price of petrol will soon go yet higher in Kinshasa, so they delay selling it. All Riva really wants to do, notwithstanding the gangsters in pursuit of him, is to have a good time on his cash advances—to party, to seduce women, to have fun. He goes at this with a will, and his insouciance and recklessness are part of what make Riva a sympathetic character, even as we the audience know that if things carry on this way they are likely to end up in a very bad place indeed.

Speaking to Wa Munga about his movie, and about making movies in Africa, as well as the pressures of a global marketplace saturated with American storytelling styles, he made a good point. For him, he said, the question to be asked about any story one wanted to tell in cinematic form was: Where am I in the story? That is, in each special case, how is the film to construct and present the unique viewpoint of an African from a particular place in a particular time?

Local colours and textures

Wa Munga does this in Viva Riva! by making sure Kinshasa itself is very present in the film—its streets, dirty or clean; its inner environments, from ordinary homes to flashy nightclubs; its people, whether grubby or glamorous, good, bad, or just somewhere in the muddle in between. It’s all in Lingala, too, which of course provides it with a great deal of local specificity, but I think it’s mostly the way Wa Munga uses the textures and colours of Kinshasa that gives Viva Riva! a lot of its richness and its force.

For Viva Riva! is certainly a powerful film. Whatever our mixed feelings about Riva, who is by no means a purely admirable protagonist, certainly not a hero in any conventional sense, we can emotionally attach to his struggle—his desperation to make some money in this hardscrabble world of dog-eat-dog survival, to make something, anything, from his hitherto rather useless life, as well as his desire to have some short-term fun in the process. Here, surely, the film crystallises a set of attitudes and behaviours that are not limited to the streets of Kinshasa.

That the film is also bloodily violent, that it is replete with betrayals and backstabbings, is part of what makes it powerful. The violence is not stylised in the manner of American thrillers, but shoved messily in one’s face; it’s part of the texture of life (and death) in this place in this time.

The betrayals, too, one feels, are an inevitable part of this world, not so much issues of individual character as signs of how people are formed by and behave in terms of their specific world.

The world of Viva Riva! (and note how deeply ironic the title is) is not a world one may want to live in, but at least the movie gives one a real sense of what it must feel like to be embedded in such a world, and to find that there are few, if any, routes of escape from it. For that sense of a real, lived-in world, and what that means to people in it, if for nothing else, Viva Riva! should be seen—especially by South Africans. It’s got heaps of local content.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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