Viva Riva! is a Congolese crime thriller and feature-length debut of writer/producer/director Djo Tunda Wa Munga. The film has been a big hit on the festival circuit, having won a number of awards including Best Director for Munga at the African Movie Academy Awards earlier this year.

We caught up for the director recently to talk about his blistering debut, his influences and his ambitions in shaping a future film community within The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Viva Riva! is the first feature to be shoot there).

Read our review of the film here.

The film is incredibly well-made and it also has a polished look to it. Was that an entirely conscious decision on your behalf to make it look that way?

Yes, absolutely. To give you a little background on Kinshasa (the film’s location and setting), there is no film industry or film school over there, so the heads of departments came from various different countries. The French DOP I worked with had a lot of experience, having shot something like 40 feature films and the challenge for him was to come to a small film in the Congo with very little equipment and with a small crew and maybe work on the edge and try new things. We used the stills D5 camera, which at the time was used very much for commercials but not for a feature film, so it was a whole new experience and we didn’t know what to expect, but that’s where you feel the importance of having a good DOP who has experienced and can calculates how he can use the equipment better.

In all the process, especially when we came to the grading, some of the calculations he had made before could be applied here so we got all the rough colour and energy we were looking for and it all worked out pretty well.

There are a mixture of genres in the film. There’s a bit of film noir in there, especially with your femme fatale and there are elements of a gangster and action films too. Who are your influences?

Mainly I chose first to make a genre film because it allowed me to talk about social issues, but at the same time, the idea was to make something which entertained too. Like in the 40’s and 50’s, there were all these important issues in society but you can do it in a way where people can look at the film and relate to the film but not have a heavy feeling. Also you have this fame fatale which was a fantastic part of those old American movies.

The second influence came from the Hong Kong movies. The directors were technically brilliant in the way they were shooting their films. Even with the heavy gunfights, you see the rhythm was very fast and very exciting. Directors that are very important to me are the likes of Abel Ferrara, Brian De Palma, Scorsese, but there’s one specific movie which inspired me that I kept looking at and that was the Akira Kurosawa feature called Straw Dogs. It’s set in Japan after the Second World War and focuses on a policeman who loses his gun and hunts all around the city for it. You have this thriller narrative part but the background around it is like a documentary and this was the approach for what I wanted to do in Kinshasa which lends itself it that vivid, documentary feel.

My background is in line-producing documentaries and that was important because when you come to real people’s houses and their environments, there is something which is alive that you can’t really define and you try and capture that. This was what I was trying to do with ‘Viva’. Sound too is also very important in that mix in helping to create that atmosphere.

A genuinely erotic atmosphere permeates within the film, and it’s very liberating to see the representation of sexuality on screen like that. Were there any issues with the content?

I haven’t had any problems for the moment (laughs). I’m aware there might be some potential problems, especially in Africa with the tough measures and laws against homosexuality which are really terrible. In reality however, all that sexuality is there – from the prostitution to the homosexual relations, there’s an appetite for sex. It’s also part of poverty too, because there’s not much for people to do and in a sense, it’s their release.

The actors asked if  we were going to do the scenes as they had been written, and my answer was, listen, we’re trying to portray the reality of what it’s like here. We tried to be as authentic as possible. If you want to be true and create a landmark picture to say this is what happened in our time, we need to have those scenes. People got that. One of the actors did say we are kind of pioneers. I was quite surprised that the Congolese audience haven’t really responded to the shocking and taboo side. They recognise the reality they see on screen, which is important.

Benda Belili, the recently documentary about the Congolese street musician has gone down incredibly with audiences around the world. Has that film and Viva Riva created a blossoming effect in the creative filmmaking scene over there?

I wouldn’t say blossoming, because it would be too early to predict that. I’ve met Benda Belili’s French director early on when they first arrived and I watched the film develop and I’m very happy of its success. In parallel, I will say what we have in common is that we were there from the beginning. In different ways we did something in the Congo. I know how hard it is to get a film off the ground but I hope there are more films made here and I’d really love for other filmmakers to have the courage to come over and work in the Congo and develop movies. That’s what I dream for my country.

You’ve talked about the sparseness of film activity over there. Where did you study?

I studied in Brussels. I did Fine Arts when I was a teenager and then after that I went to film school.

Do you have anything planned as a follow-up yet? ‘Riva’ is the kind of film which could appeal to audiences in America. Have you had any feedback from over there?

So far we have been receiving good reviews all over. I was at the Hong Kong Film Festival last week and was very surprised to find the final screening was sold out. It’s being released in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, and Holland so I hope it does well.

I’m working on a Congo/China co-production next. It’s another thriller set again in Kinshasa with a mixture of Chinese and Congolese. With these films I’m depicting the last twenty years of life in the Congo and all the changes, the violence, the collapse of the family and the greed and capitalism around, and the Chinese are perhaps the biggest immigrants to Africa in that time. In the story, it will be interesting to talk about and explore the questions of identity.

Viva Riva! is out in UK cinemas today.