Director: Djo Tunda Wa Munga
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Countdown to Zero
Director: Lucy Walker
“KINSHASA the beautiful. Kinshasa the dustbin.” someone remarks during the entertaingly colourful and vibrant crime-thriller Viva Riva!, a film-festival hit which is one of the very few instances of a commercial African movie obtaining widespread international distribution. The line is a play on words inspired by the city’s semi-official nickname in French, Kin la belle - here expanded to Kin la poubelle to signify the squalor and deprivation experienced by so many of its 10 million residents.
But while the image presented here of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – formerly Zaire, and not to be confused with the next-door Republic of Congo – isn’t necessarily one that the national tourist board would wish to endorse, 39-year-old writer/director Djo Tunda Wa Munga deserves credit for putting his home town firmly on the cinematic map.
Having travelled widely – he trained in Belgium and worked as a producer for the BBC – Munga went back to Africa determined to create a viable DRC film-industry almost from scratch. “For 20 years,” he told The Guardian, “Kinshasans have lived through every spirit-crushing experience – war, crime, corruption, shortages, poverty and the break-up of the family. Yet their clocks keep on ticking, and life goes on.”
It’s much to Munga’s credit that in his confidently-handled debut feature he manages to sensitively incorporate the troubled history of both city and nation (and, by extension, continent) as a vivid, viable backdrop for his uncompromisingly violent and steamily sensual plot. The focus is very much on the characters, who are all formed – but by no means defined – by their pasts, and who have their eyes set on a better future. For several of them, this may well involve diverging from the path of moral rectitude – especially in the case of the eponymous Riva (Patsha Bay), a smiling, swaggering gangster who has been out of the city for a decade.
The flashy Riva wastes little time establishing his “credentials” upon his arrival, swigging expensive champagne from a bottle while cutting a rug in a heaving nightspot, and seeking to usurp current underworld top-dog Azor (Diplome Amekindra) by muscling in not only on his turf but also on his woman, Nora (Manie Malone). The latter pursuit provides typical examples of Riva’s bold audacity (“A woman like you deserves to be with me… I’ll set you on fire”), including an eyebrow-raising sex-scene conducted through the bars of a bathroom window in Azor’s fortified complex.
Azor’s opulent ‘crib’ is the fanciest of Viva Riva!‘s manifold locations, during which we get a thorough guided-tour of a city whose income disparities rival those of big-city Brazil – and not for nothing has Viva Riva! been compared with Fernando Meirelles’ City of God.
While not quite up to that crackerjack level – Munga’s slick approach means that the pacing is rather more sedate than one might expect - Viva Riva! does have the decisive edge in terms of its distaff representation. Munga creates a stack of strong female roles – most notably the decisive, resourceful ‘Comandante’ (Marlene Longange), who’s invariably presented in her Army uniform until a startling last-reel switch to a nun’s outfit – ensuring that Riva isn’t the only focus of our attention.
Playing like an updated, extended version of 1930s gangster classics – with nods to Lino Brocka’s 1970s Filipino classics, and several larcenous borrowings from Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way(1993) - Viva Riva! gains a topical anthropological/socio-economic edge by setting its action during a dire fuel-crisis which various nefarious groupings seek to exploit for their own ends (“don’t worry – tomorrow we become kings of the city.”)
AT an early stage in the utterly gripping, politically-charged 130-minute page-turner Incendies, a professor of Pure Mathematics describes his field as comprising “insoluble problems that will lead to further insoluble problems … [of] mind-boggling complexity.” And that also just about sums up the painfully thorny interfaces between past and present which constitute the terrain traversed both by the Oscar-nominated French-Canadian picture’s protagonists – Nawal (Lubna Azabal) and her grown-up children Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) – and also by scriptwriter/director Villeneuve, adapting Wadji Mouawad’s play (the title is sometimes rendered as ‘Scorched’ in English) with the assistance of Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne.
Indeed, it’s a major point in the picture’s favour that the end-credits information that it has a theatrical source at all – so comprehensively “opened out” has it been to encompass a range of rural and urban middle-Eastern exteriors – will come as a considerable surprise to many viewers. And it won’t have been the only eye-opened, as the screenplay’s ambitious structure first sets up an intriguing mystery (involving Nawal’s engagement in her region’s turbulent events during the 1970s and 1980s, and the complex circumstances behind the conception and birth of her children), develops it along twin chronological parallels (as first Jeanne and then Simon leave their Canadian homes to follow the traces left by their recently-deceased mother, in accordance with the instructions of her will), then resolves it via several startling final-reel revelations.
The last of these – as well as being perhaps somewhat “guessable” some way in advance – may strike many as being overly reliant on coincidences that are too contrived and too horrifically ironic to be fit alongside the deeply serious real-life backdrop chosen for this fictional tale. But the denouement could validly be construed as endowing these specifically contemporary proceedings with some of the inevitability and grandeur – within a tight, specific, domestic focus – of ancient tragedies. But in either case, there’s absolutely no quibbling with the terrific force and intensity of Azabal’s performance as a principled, intelligent, engaged woman who ages decades over the course of the picture’s 130 minutes and who along the way experiences the most gruellingly savage extremes of human barbarity.
HAVING expounded the merits of Viva Riva! and Incendies at such length, there’s not much space for Countdown to Zero, latest offering from British film-maker Lucy Walker whose Waste Land, co-directed with Angus Aynsley, was nominated for Best Documentary at the most recent Academy Awards. Countdown to Zero is also a non-fiction enterprise, but it’s rather more agit-prop than ‘document’, constructing a case for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Vox-pop interviews reveal the scale of public ignorance/complacency regarding this hot-button issue, which is then explored via illustrated examples of why ‘Nukes’ are such a bad idea, with heavyweight political-celebrity testimony from the likes of Blair, Carter, Gorbachev and so on (Walker’s strategy is straightforward: she establishes the extent of, and then challenges, the current level of international public disconcern.)
There’s hardly any mention of that major nuclear-power Israel (likewise George W Bush is conspicuous by his absence, ditto the near-apocalypse that was the Bay of Pigs incident), with the focus instead much more on the hazards posed by Iran and Pakistan. The latter is “the most dangerous place in the world right now,” according to Bruce Blair (no kin), Chairman of the World Security Institute – the American think-tank whose Global Zero campaign is behind the movie. Bruce Blair is an executive producer of Countdown to Zero, in collaboration with the makers of Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
Lacking an Al Gore figure to hold proceedings together (the closest equivalent here is former CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose headline-making case is never mentioned), this latest attempt to raise consciousness on a key 21st-century subject has a frustratingly diffuse feel, delivering a whistlestop tour of global politics and terrorism within its 90 choppy minutes and lacking anything resemble a viable naysaying voice.
The manipulative, didactic tone provides as much irritation and frustration as chilling illumination along the way to its climactic collapse into shrill tubthumping (“Ban production; Increase Security; Destroy Stockpile”), with the – by now – (skilfully) traumatised viewer enjoined to text their support for the campaign (“Demand ZERO”) and visit its website. Countdown to zero? Countdown to the picture’s ‘moral’, rather.
14th June, 2011
(written for the 22nd June edition of Tribune magazine)