Taking a break from French politics, which I’ve been writing about pretty much nonstop for the past few weeks, I want to mention a few movies I’ve seen of late. One is this slick Congolese crime thriller, the first feature-length film shot in that country since the 1980s. The story is about a small time, high-living hustler named Riva, who steals a truckload of gasoline from the Angolan criminal gang he works for to sell on the Kinshasa black market for his own profit, of his run-ins with corrupt soldiers, policemen, priests—everyone is corrupt or corruptible—plus local criminal kingpins, all while trying to evade his Angolan gangster boss and his henchmen, who are hot on his trail. It’s a good, entertaining action film, with the usual dose of violence plus steamy sex scenes. For those who may be not be into this genre—and I’m usually not—, it’s worth seeing for no other reason than it was entirely shot on location in and around Kinshasa, which is a city that has to be seen to be believed. The European producer wanted the director, Djo Tunda wa Munga, to shoot the film elsewhere for security reasons, but he insisted on doing so in Kinshasa, as no other city could possibly substitute (it would be akin to shooting a film in Albuquerque and calling it L.A.).
Kinshasa—where I spent four days four years ago—is a teeming Fourth World urban dystopia of ten million people—many refugees from the war ravaged interior of the country—and the capital of a failed state—of a once kleptocratic state that has collapsed into near non-existence after two decades of war, five decades of catastrophic misrule, and, prior to that, one of the worst colonial systems ever. Before arriving in Kinshasa from sleepy Brazzaville across the river, I was told to get ready for Mad Max à l’africaine. Kinshasa is the one African capital I’ve visited where I was issued with a cell phone to call US embassy security if I was out and about and thought I was going to be robbed—not by criminals but by uniformed soldiers who hadn’t been paid in months, who cruise the streets looking for foreigners to shake down. And if one is not accompanied by a local fixer at the airport, the probability that one will be robbed or extorted in the gauntlet of men in uniform is close to 100% (N’Djili has to be the worst airport in the world, hands down and by far). But despite all this, there is a vibrancy to Kinshasa. It has a great music scene—as one may glean, e.g., in the fine 2007 documentary ‘On the Rumba River‘—and the academics, journalists, and students I met there were great. The Belgians built Kinshasa to be a majestic, European-style city. If the Congo had had a functioning, even halfway rational state these past decades, Kinshasa could have been just that.
But the place is chaotic and sans foi ni loi, which the film captures perfectly. At the end I thought of the final scene of the Coen brothers’ ‘Fargo’: all those people killed and for what? Here, a few lousy barrels of gasoline. Life sucks in a failed state. À propos, the film is recommended for those of a social scientific bent and/or interested in comparative politics or development issues. The acting is also very good, notably the lesbian army captain who masquerades as a nun (actress Marlene Longange) and the femme fatale played by the bellissime Franco-Ivorienne Manie Malone—she learned Lingala for the role—, who, as Variety’s critic correctly observed, is “stunning…a knockout from head to toe” (see here, here, and here). The pic received top reviews in the US (here, here, and here)—where it opened last year—, as well as in France (here).
Another film I’ve seen lately on the same general theme is ‘Miss Bala’, a Mexican crime thriller about a college student and beauty queen contestant in Tijuana—played by the rather beautiful model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman—, who is press-ganged into serving a local drug gang (it’s based on an actual story from a few years ago). The pic is a hyper-realistic portrayal of the unbelievable level of violence in Mexico, of its descente aux enfers into a narco state. Objectively it’s a good film—reviews in both the US and France are tops—but it’s not “fun” like ‘Viva Riva!’ nor an edge-of-the-seat thriller, insofar as the set pieces, while well done, are choreographed and you know the poor young woman, though caught in a hellish engrenage, is not going to get killed. If Mexico has really become like this—and I’m quite sure the film’s depiction is accurate—, well, this is really a disaster. And right on the US border, and with the US in no small part responsible. On y reviendra à l’occasion.