MIP honoree mentors as he produces and directs

There are no splashy cinemas with brightly lit marquees in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But that does not stop director and producer Djo Tunda Wa Munga from making films on the streets of the capital, Kinshasa.

After decades of conflict, his native country is rebuilding, and Munga sees filmmaking as part of the new foundation.

“The government has many other problems to resolve — the roads, the hospitals, the schools,” says Munga. “They don’t realize art is really important to build the identity of a country and the identity of people.”

So the 37-year-old Munga and his production company, Suka!, are stepping in where a busy and budget-strained bureaucracy can’t, making both documentary and feature films focusing on the DRC.

Munga wrote and directed the first feature shot in Congo in decades, “Viva Riva!,” about a man readjusting to life in Congo after returning from Europe with an ill-gotten fortune. In the documentary arena, Munga directed “State of Mind,” which follows attempts by Congolese to overcome conflict-induced psychological trauma, and produced “Congo in Four Acts,” four films by young Congolese filmmakers about daily life in their country. “Four Acts” unspooled in the Forum at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

The next generation of DRC filmmakers is a major concern for Munga, even as he edits “Viva Riva!” (with the aim of getting it into a major film festival) and begins work on his second feature. “Four Acts” grew out of a training program for aspiring directors that Munga launched in the DRC three years ago. It was based on an education curriculum designed by his alma mater, INSAS, a film school in Brussels that had been used in several countries to teach professional production skills.

Beyond learning the mechanics of moviemaking, Munga hopes students will reach beyond the old style and content ruts into which films about Africa often slip.

“What I say to young filmmakers is, don’t think too much about how the Western culture shot our country,” Munga says. “Focus on what you want to do, the people you love, people you are interested in — most important is to find our voices.”

Munga was encouraged from an early age to find his. He grew up drawing, reading and going to the cinema in a DRC that he describes as more open than it is today. But due to escalating conflicts in the country, his parents sent him to attend school in Belgium when he was 9 years old.

In Brussels, he studied art. Then his brother casually suggested he try a film workshop. He was hooked, and in his late teens attended film school in Belgium.

Documentaries grabbed his attention. He shot his first in Belfast in 1998, asking residents how they viewed themselves compared to how the rest of the world saw them.

“The main purpose of a filmmaker is to make film where it’s needed,” Munga says.

The philosophy has led to years of filming difficult subjects, but Munga’s outlook is bright: “I really try to find a way to tell a story I am enjoying.”

One way he does that is by allowing the two genres in which he works to influence each other.

“I just shot a feature film, and the way I create my images is actually not far from reality,” says Munga.

He is an admirer of Surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s merging of a dream-world with society’s realities and sees a stylistic overlap between documentary and narrative film.

“The best feature films are those that are really close to documentary, and maybe the other way around,” he says.

Munga’s next project is another feature set in the eastern part of DRC focusing on the civil war. But he knows he can’t be the country’s lone voice and hopes to establish Congo’s first film school.

“We can tell the story of the corner of our street, but we’ll also interact with the rest of the world because we have globalization,” he says.

As a young film student, Munga longed for African filmmaker role models. He wants to make sure that kids growing up in DRC today won’t have a problem finding them.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more