“My name, Baloji, means ‘sorcerer’ in Swahili, which is a difficult name to live with. It’s like being an American named ‘devil.’ It’s like getting assigned something at birth. All my life dealing with the assignment of my name.”
Baloji laughs. He’s at home in Belgium, talking via Zoom about his long journey to make Omen, his feature debut as a director. The drama, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar, winning the new voice prize for best first feature, draws on Baloji’s personal experiences as a Congolese-born, European-raised artist with complicated feelings towards the cultures of both his birth and adopted homelands. The plot follows Koffi (Marc Zinga), a young Congolese man living in Europe with his white fiancée Alice (Lucie Debay) who travels to Congo in an effort to mend his relationship with his family, particularly his mother Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua). His mum sent him to Europe shortly after his birth, labeling him a sorcerer because of an odd-shaped birthmark.
Baloji, who moved to Belgium with his father when he was a child, had also lost contact with his birthmother. As a teenager, he founded the pioneering Belgium hip-hop group Starflam and released several hit albums before leaving the band in the mid-2000s. His return to music, as a solo artist, was triggered by his re-reading a letter from his mother, written in 1981, after he had left for Europe. Much of his work since, including Omen, can be seen as a response to that letter. His attempt to talk back to his family and history.
Omen tells the story of four people, each accused of witchcraft and ostracised from their communities, who struggle to find a way back. Stylistically, Baloji embraces the Congolese tradition of witchcraft and sorcery in its magically-realist approach to storytelling and visual style. But above all the film, which is screening in the Horizons section of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this week, is a story of the struggle for identity and community.
What was the initial spark that led to this film?
It was a combination of things. I’ve been writing scripts since around 2012 but took me a moment to get the funding. I had like three projects I wanted to work on that never got funding so I decided to make a kind of hybrid form, something that would connect the structure of films with musical aspects, with the work I was doing with costume and set design, combining a little bit of everything while I was waiting for the industry, basically, to just give me a chance. That’s why I did my [short film] Zombies (in 2018), so I could try things out, try and build my own way of expression until someone noticed. I was basically doing movies as a side business. Luckily for me, as I kept working, I started to get some recognition. Zombies won some prizes, and people started to pay attention.
I actually wrote the script for Omen in a month, or like six weeks, between December 2019 and January 2020. It was after the passing of my dad, so it was sort of my way of mourning. I felt: I’ll write another script that will never get funded. But this time, we got the money and we made the movie!
Magic and witchcraft are at the center of the story, is that an obsession of yours?
Indeed. Indeed. That for me was really the starting point. I’m very obsessed with how people in a society can be objectified, can be assigned an identity at birth, put in a certain box. My name, Baloji, means ‘sorcerer’ in Swahili, which is a difficult name to live with. It’s like being an American named ‘devil.’ It’s like getting assigned something at birth. All my life dealing with the assignment of my name. I thought that was something interesting to explore, but only if it wasn’t so self-centered, just about me. So I did a lot of reading about witchcraft and the culture of witches in different societies. The origin of my name, actually, had meant man of science or woman of science. A healer might be the best translation in English. But when Christianity and the colonizers came, they gave the local science negative connotations, making it like black magic. So all those things, the tradition, the language, the religion, the history and how it all comes together in personal identity, that’s the subject of Omen.
Did you shoot entirely in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Yes, we had two days in shooting in Belgium for the beginning of the story, but the rest in Congo. My short, Zombies, was shot in DRC so for me this was a continuation. And it’s something very important for me to, to work there. For multiple reasons: Political, cultural, and personal. I have family connections there. But I also think it’s important that we show Africa in a different way, that we present our culture differently than what comes out in the news. In the geographic structure of the film, I try to give a sense of the country. We don’t mention the name of the city in the film and we basically combined two cities: the capital Kinshasa, which has around 15 million people, and the economic center of the country, Lubumbashi, which is where I’m from. Geographically you can compare them to New York and Los Angeles. We combined the two cities so when you are in the heart of the city it’s more Kinshasa/New York and when you’re outside it’s more Lubumbashi/Los Angeles, more spread out, more desert, which is where part of the characters’ family structure goes. I thought it was interesting to recreate our country’s own geography on top of this narrative.
Some have described the film as magical realism. Is that a label you embrace?
I think it’s a mix of different art forms. I think it’s also connected to the fact that I’ve worked a lot on this topic, combining real events with imagination. The Congolese situation often is extremely absurd. And I’d say my cinema has something very absurd about it. The absurdity comes from the situation, which is often so hard that humor is the only way you can address it.
Then it’s a question of how I work. I come at the story from the perspective of multiple art forms: From literature, writing, from music, from visual arts. I consider myself primarily a writer. My first job is doing poetry. But I also get extremely inspired by Flemish painters, for example, all these visual arts forms that allow you to let the mind speak without respecting structure or narrative.
Was it a greater challenge than making an album? How does the work of a filmmaker compare with that of a songwriter and music producer?
This is probably a stupid metaphor, but I’d say if you do a sprint, run 100 meters, and then you do a marathon, and run 44 kilometers, it’s all running but it’s not really the same sport. Film is a marathon and a very collaborative effort. Which I love. I love working with all the departments, with costumes, everything. I have a musical background and I know the power that music can have on a scene, to change your perception of that scene so vividly, and I understand the importance that the fabric or texture of the costume, the structure of the set. I come from a graphic and so I’m very sensitive to nice typography. For me working on a film is a constant pleasure, it’s like playing when I was a little boy. But it takes a long time. The funding took forever so while I was waiting, I wrote an album, actually 4 albums, each written from the point of view of the four characters in Omen, each filling in their backstory with their own music and personal identity. It was a great tool for the actors because I gave them the album for their character and said, here’s the whole energy around your character, you can listen to this which expresses the feeling your character is going through in this or that scene. It’s not that we used that music in the scene in the film but it gave an idea of the energy.
Do you find the narrative structure of traditional European cinema too restrictive? Omen seems to be combining a more traditional narrative with experimental elements in storytelling.
Well, African cinema doesn’t really have a strong funding structure. So most [African directors] have to rely on European funding most of the time and we are forced to tell narratives in a way so that European people can relate to the. In a way, we are trained to betray our own narratives to make them acceptable for funding. I think, for example, South Korean cinema doesn’t have this problem. They can be straight up in the way they tell their stories, saying “this is our culture, this is what we do.” As African filmmakers, I think we still have to be a little bit more conventional. But that’s slowly changing now.
I was lucky to have a producer who trusted me but I think most people, among the funding bodies, had issues with the narrative structure of the film. We just kept on fighting. But it was very hard. This is my first feature film and it is told from four different points of views, which is not easy. It’s difficult for people to accept that approach because we are so trained to think we need to have a single, traditional type of narrative structure. And then there are unrealistic, magical elements. Like in one scene, I show these girls who are paid criers at funerals, which exist. And my girls cry so much they cry a small river. When people read this in a script, they say: This isn’t cinema, it’s not realistic. So, yeah, it was a struggle.
Now I’m going to say something very stupid, but people always have the idea of Africa as a dark continent. But we also have 4G. When a technology is available here, in Europe, it’s available there in Africa as well. We have access to the same knowledge, we know what is going on in the world, and we have our own perspective on it. We just don’t have a chance to express our vision. When we try to are pressured to tell our stories in a way that pleases European funding committees. Most commissioners didn’t understand, for example, that my characters don’t yell at their parents. They said: The way the parents are treating them, they need to yell, to show the conflict. I told them: This is just a cultural thing you have to accept, this isn’t how we do things. Sadly, African cinema isn’t yet in the position of Asian cinema where we can tell our own stories in our own way without relying on funding, and interference, from abroad.
This interview was edited for length and comprehension.
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