By Daniel Lindvall.
CinemaAfrica is Stockholm’s annual African film festival. The 12th edition, 23-28 March 2011, screened 43 films from 16 countries, not counting a block of 15 animated short films. The programme included films by directors well known to international art house audiences, such as Chadian Mahamat Saleh Haroun (A Screaming Man) and Franco-Algerian Rachid Bouchareb (Outside the Law), as well as popular genre films and documentaries. This is the first of a handful of planned review articles about films presented at this year’s CinemAfrica festival.
‘African cinema’ is a vast concept. What do the film cultures of Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria’s Nollywood industry have in common? To what extent are there particularly African themes or African aesthetics? Should there be? Such questions have been asked for as long as films have been made in Africa and I make no pretence about answering them. Still, the questions unavoidably pose themselves when I watch, first, the Congolese action movie Viva Riva! and then, in quick succession, the Mozambican magic realist drama, The Last Flight of the Flamingo.
On the surface the two films couldn’t be more opposed. Viva Riva! (directed by Djo Tunda wa Munga) is a fast-paced gangster movie, reminiscent of a high-end American Blaxploitation film. Lethal violence, guns, torture, casual sex and prostitution occur in almost every scene. Inter-African racism, misogyny and near-total corruption characterise the life of the 10 million-plus megacity of Kinshasa, where the film is set. It is beautifully shot in high definition, with lush colour scales of green, red, gold and earth tones, as the camera moves smoothly through the busy nightlife, the crowded daytime streets or the luxurious home of a flashy gangster boss. Editing also is smooth and rhythmical. Acting is naturalistic, with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek. It conforms in almost every way to the accepted standards of the ‘well-made’ Hollywood genre movie, which is perhaps why it picked up all the most prestigious prizes – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design – at the 7th African Movie Academy Awards, the continent’s equivalent of the Oscars.
But if Viva Riva! was Africa’s choice for best movie of 2010, it divided the audience in Stockholm, according to festival director Sandra Olivegren. Whilst young viewers, new to African cinema and expecting a ‘difficult’, culturally remote experience, were pleasantly surprised by the thrills and cultural accessibility of the film, some veterans of the festival questioned whether this was the kind of film the festival ought to present, objecting to the amount of sex and violence.
The latter audience members would no doubt have felt more at ease with The Last Flight of the Flamingo, a film based on a novel by the white Mozambican author Mia Couto and directed by João Ribeiro. Where Viva Riva! is urban, cynical and, rather superficially, ultra-materialist, Last Flight is set in the countryside and offers redemption through love and magic. Where women in Viva Riva! are little more than victims, whether as wives, girlfriends or prostitutes, two strong female characters are at the centre of Last Flight. If the story in Viva Riva! is a rather basic crime story, Last Flight deals explicitly with political issues concerning the legacy of colonialism. And where Viva Riva! rushes ahead at full speed, ending in an orgy of killings, Last Flight moves along at a slower, quirkier pace.
Yet, scratch the surface and the two films are perhaps not as absolutely opposite as one might immediately believe. Both deal with violent crime. In Viva Riva! the main character, the title’s Riva, returns from Angola to his hometown Kinshasa with a truckload of (probably) smuggled and (probably) stolen petrol, a commodity much coveted as there is a severe shortage of the stuff locally. At his heels are his double-crossed former Angolan partners and, soon, also a local crime boss. In Last Flight an Italian UN officer, Massimo, is sent to the small town of Tizangara to investigate the death of five UN soldiers who have blown up mysteriously, with only their genital organs and their blue helmets to be found at the scenes of crime.
Both films contain several sex scenes and sexuality is presented as a strong driving force. In fact, it is in Last Flight that naked female bodies are most often exposed to the camera and the audience. In Viva Riva! nudity is generally covered up by the choice of camera angles. The women in Viva Riva! are continuously offered to men, shown off to men, used by men, but they are rarely shown off to the audience. The mistaken impression that women are objectified, shown off, also by the camera in Viva Riva! is probably a result of the uniformly misogynistic attitudes of the men in the film and the way the director/the film apparently indulges this behaviour.
In both films corruption is widespread in all social institutions. In Viva Riva! the police, the army, even the church is on the take. In Last Flight, the local authorities, the church and the UN representatives are happy to accept a suitable cover-up story.
Last Flight also displays the same lush – I’m tempted to say ‘African’ – scheme of warm colours as does Viva Riva!.
And, finally and most strikingly, the two films end in rather similar ways, with the worlds we have got to know apparently auto-destructing, leaving, in Viva Riva! only a young boy, a street vendor and errand boy for Riva, alive, and in Last Flight only Massimo and his local assistant, the son of a ‘witch doctor’. Of course, this auto-destruction comes about very differently. In Viva Riva! the gangsters finish each other off, with the dying killing their killers before drawing their final breath. In Last Flight the entire country of Mozambique magically disappears, with Massimo and his friend left on a cliff seemingly floating in the air.
But these endings also differ in a more important aspect. In Viva Riva! we are left with no reason for hope whatsoever. As the errand boy gets in behind the wheel of the gangsters’ SUV and finds a bunch of dollars, it doesn’t feel like a fresh start, only the beginning of a repetition of the life of Riva. In a world where we have been presented with not a single sympathetic character there is no reason to imagine anything else. In Last Flight the ‘forces of good’ – love, magic and benign tradition, here opposed to neo-colonial, oppressive political modernity – have already prevailed before this final act and we are more or less promised that life will again return when the flamingo, according to a local legend, brings back the sun. A magic rebirth is on its way.
So, there we are, with two films that might be said to represent opposing ends of the spectrum of African cinema. Yet, also two films that have more in common than initially meet the eye. I wouldn’t pretend that they sum up African film, but perhaps together they say something about the disparity and unity of the continent’s cinema, or at least, about the fascinating breadth of CinemAfrica.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.