“My name, Baloji, means ‘magician’ in Swahili, a name that is difficult to live with. It’s like being an American with the name “Devil”. It’s like being assigned something at birth. My whole life I have been concerned with giving my name.”
Baloji laughs. He is at home in Belgium and talks about his long journey via Zoom omen, his feature film debut as a director. The drama, which premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and won the New Voice Award for Best First Feature, is based on Baloji’s personal experiences as a Congo-born, European-raised artist with complicated feelings about the culture of his birth and adoptive culture home countries. The plot revolves around Koffi (Marc Zinga), a young Congolese man living in Europe with his white fiancé Alice (Lucie Debay) who travels to Congo to rebuild his relationship with his family, particularly his mother Mujila (Yves- Marina Gnahoua) to improve. . His mother sent him to Europe shortly after he was born, labeling him a magician because of an oddly shaped birthmark.
Baloji, who moved to Belgium with his father as a child, had also lost contact with his birth mother. As a teenager he formed the seminal Belgian 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 sparked by re-reading a 1981 letter from his mother after he left for Europe. Much of his work since then, including omen, can be taken as a reply to this letter. His attempt to speak to his family and history.
omen tells the story of four people, all accused of witchcraft and cast out of their communities, struggling to find a way back. Stylistically, Baloji draws on the Congolese tradition of witchcraft and sorcery in his magical realist approach to storytelling and visual style. Above all, the film, which is screened this week in the Horizons section of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, is a story of 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 screenplays since about 2012, but it took me a moment to get funding. I had about three projects I wanted to work on that never got any funding, so I decided to create some kind of hybrid form, something that combined the structure of films with musical aspects, with the work I did with costume and set design and she combined a bit of everything while waiting for the industry to just give me a chance. That’s why I made mine [short film] zombies (in 2018) so I could try things and develop my own expression until someone noticed. Basically, I made films as a side hustle. Luckily I got some recognition in the course of my work. zombies won some awards and people started taking notice.
In fact, I wrote the script for Omen in a month or about six weeks between December 2019 and January 2020. It was after my father died, so it was a kind of sadness for me. I felt like I’m going to write another screenplay that will never get funded. But this time we got the money and made the movie!
Magic and witchcraft are central to the story. Is that an obsession of yours?
As a matter of fact. As a matter of fact. That was really the starting point for me. I’m very obsessed with how people can be objectified in a society, given an identity at birth and pigeonholed. My name, Baloji, means ‘magician’ in Swahili, a name that is difficult to live with. It’s like being an American with the name “Devil”. It’s like being assigned something at birth. All my life I have been dealing with the assignment of my name. I thought this would be something interesting to explore but only if it wasn’t so self centered as just about me. So I read a lot about witchcraft and witch culture in different societies. The origin of my name actually meant “man of science” or “woman of science”. “A healer” is possibly the best translation in English. But when Christianity and the colonizers came, they gave negative connotations to local science and turned it into black magic. All these things, the tradition, the language, the religion, the history and how it all fits together in personal identity, that’s the theme of omen.
Did you shoot exclusively in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
Yes, at the beginning of the story we had two days of shooting in Belgium, but the rest in Congo. my shorts, zombies, was filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so for me this was a sequel. And it’s very important to me to work there. For several reasons: political, cultural and personal. I have family contacts there. But I also think it’s important that we show Africa differently, that we present our culture differently than what’s in the news. Through the geographical structure of the film, I try to convey an impression of the country. We don’t mention the city’s name in the film and we basically combined two cities: the capital, Kinshasa, with around 15 million inhabitants, and the economic center of the country, Lubumbashi, where I’m from. Geographically, you can compare them to New York and Los Angeles. We combined the two cities so that in the heart of the city you see more of Kinshasa/New York and when you’re outside you see more of Lubumbashi/Los Angeles, more scattered, more desert where part of the characters’ family structure goes. I found it interesting to recreate our country’s own geography based on this narrative.
Some have described the film as magical realism. Is that a label you accept?
I think it’s a mix of different art forms. I think that also has something to do with the fact that I’ve dealt with this topic a lot and combine real events with fantasy. The Congolese situation is often extremely absurd. And I would say there is something very absurd about my cinema. The absurdity arises from the situation, which is often so difficult that the only way to approach it is with humor.
Then it’s a question of how I work. I look at history from the perspective of several art forms: literature, writing, music, visual arts. I consider myself primarily a writer. My first job is writing poetry. But I’m also extremely inspired by Flemish painters, for example all those forms of visual art that allow you to let the spirit speak without regard to structure or narrative.
Was it a bigger challenge than making an album? How does the work of a filmmaker compare to that of a songwriter and music producer?
That’s probably a silly metaphor, but I would say if you do a sprint, run 100 meters and then do a marathon and run 44 km, that’s all running, but it’s not really the same sport. Film is a marathon and a very collaborative effort. who i love I love working with all departments, costumes, everything. Coming from a musical background, I understand the power music can have on a scene to change your perception of that scene so vividly, and I understand the importance of the fabric or texture of the costume to the structure of the set. Coming from the graphics industry, I have a great sense of beautiful typography. For me, working on a film is a constant pleasure, it’s like playing games when I was a little boy. But it takes a long time. Funding took forever so while I waited I wrote an album, actually four albums, each written from the perspective of the four characters omen, each filling 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 I said, ‘Here’s all the energy surrounding your character. You can listen to what expresses the emotion your character is going through in this or that scene.” It’s not like we used that music in the scene in the film, but it gave a sense of the energy.
Do you find the narrative structure of traditional European cinema too restrictive? Omen seems to combine a more traditional narrative with experimental storytelling elements.
Well, African cinema doesn’t really have a strong funding structure. So most [African directors] Most of the time we depend on European funds and we are forced to tell narratives in a way that Europeans can relate to. In a way, we’re trained to betray our own narratives to make them acceptable for funding. For example, I think South Korean cinema doesn’t have this problem. They can be direct in the way they tell their stories and say, ‘This is our culture, this is what we do.’ As African filmmakers, I think we need to be a little more conventional. But that is slowly changing now.
I was fortunate to have a producer who trusted me, but I think most of the funders had trouble with the film’s narrative structure. We just kept fighting. But it was very difficult. This is my first feature film and it is told from four different points of view, which is not easy. It’s difficult for people to accept this approach because we’re so trained to believe that we need a single, traditional narrative structure. And then there are unrealistic, magical elements. As if in a scene, I show these girls who act as paid criers at funerals that exist. And my girls cry so much they cry a little river. When people read that in a screenplay, they say: This isn’t cinema, it’s not realistic. So, yes, it was a struggle.
Now I’m going to say something very stupid, but people always have the idea that Africa is a dark continent. But we also have 4G. If a technology is available here, in Europe, it is also available there in Africa. We have access to the same knowledge, we know what’s going on in the world and we have our own perspective on it. We just don’t get a chance to express our vision. If we try, we will be pressured to tell our stories in a way that pleases the European funding committees. For example, most inspectors didn’t understand that my characters don’t yell at their parents. They said: The way the parents treat them, they have to shout to show the conflict. I told them: It’s just a cultural thing that you have to accept, so we don’t do it that way. Unfortunately, African cinema is not yet in the position of Asian cinema where we can tell our own stories in our own way, without depending on foreign funding and interference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.