While the American box-office chokes on teenage fanboy fantasy (Thor, Green Lantern, Harry Potter), the only three-dimensional lesbian characters to be found in the current cinema landscape come from a nation that hasn’t produced a film in 26 years. Congolese writer and filmmaker Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s Viva Riva!, playing currently in New York and Los Angeles, is a thrilling gangster film set amidst the poverty and desperation of Kinshasa, the capital of the recently war torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Munga’s highly enjoyable film features two lesbian characters who are not vilified for their sexuality — in fact, they are arguably the most sympathetic characters in the entire action epic.
Playing like a Tarantino take on Elmore Leonard (ala Jackie Brown), Viva Riva! centers on people with their backs against the wall, where bad circumstances lead to bad decisions. The protagonist Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) is a grifter who lifts a huge shipment of gasoline from an Angolan gangster (Hoji Fortuna); Riva plans on making a windfall by selling it in fuel-starved Kinshasa. Things get complicated when Riva falls for a glamorous Kinshasa moll, while the Angolan gangster blackmails a commander in the Congo military to assist him in finding Riva. Marlene Longange masterfully portrays the Commandant, who agrees to help the vicious Angolan thug only because he kidnapped her sister — a moral woman forced to act immorally, the Commandant finally reaches her limit at the film’s climax. That character’s sexuality is revealed much earlier when she meets up with a female informant (Angelique Mbumba) who plays a crucial role later in the film. While the men wait outside, the women fervently make love.
Speaking from Kinshasa, Munga tells us that while homosexuality is indeed vilified in many parts of the Congo, his hometown (where 8 million people reside) is more tolerant.
“Kinshasa is really diverse,” Munga says, adding that he’s received little negative feedback on the gay characters. “The identity of the city is quite open.”
While many African nations have laws criminalizing homosexuality, the Democratic Republic of Congo does not — the area was originally colonized by Belgium, which has allowed consensual gay relations for centuries. But the Congo has no specific workplace or housing protections for gays and the government does not sanction same-sex relationships. Still, Munga insists the issue of gays is not as taboo in the Congo as it is in a place like Uganda, where legislation that would make certain gay acts punishable by death has been debated for years.
“I don’t think,” people would have a different reaction if the Commandant or informant were gay males, he says. “I’m talking about [those in] Kinshasa, though.”
Munga, who attended film school in Belgium, is aware that things for gays are far from perfect anywhere in the Congo. A gay friend of his was beaten by the gay man’s own family, he recalls.
“People say they want to pass laws against homosexuals. That’s terrible. That’s something we have to stand up for—it’s human rights,” Munga says. “If I had the money, I’d do a film about the gay men in Congo.”
For now, Munga is working on a film that revolves around a Chinese detective brought to the Congo — he hopes to tell a human story that reflects the recent Chinese infiltration of Africa, with the nation investing in African infrastructure for trade deals on the continent’s vast resources.
The Congolese are hungry for any and all cinema — recent wars and an economic collapse in the 1980s destroyed the nation’s nascent film industry. A movie hasn't been produced in the country since 1985 and, unbelievably, there isn’t one operational movie theater in the entire nation. Munga says the Congolese have responded to Viva Riva! because it’s their story — gays and all.
“I describe the reality that I know,” he says.
Viva Riva! is currently showing at the Culver Plaza Theatres near Los Angeles and the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan.