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“My name, Baloji, means ‘sorcerer’ in Swahili, which is a difficult name to live with. It’s like being an American called “devil.” It’s like receiving something at birth. All my life dealing with the assignment of my name.
Baloji laughs. He is at home in Belgium, talking via Zoom about his long journey ahead Omen, his first feature film as a director. The drama, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, winning the New Voice award for best first feature, draws on Baloji’s personal experiences as a European-born and raised Congolese artist with complicated feelings about cultures both of his birth and of that adopted. homelands. The plot follows Koffi (Marc Zinga), a young Congolese living in Europe with his white girlfriend Alice (Lucie Debay) who travels to the Congo in an attempt to mend his relationship with his family, especially his mother Mujila (Yves -Marina Gnahoua). . His mother sent him to Europe shortly after his birth, labeling him a sorcerer due to 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 founded the pioneering Belgian hip-hop group Starflam and released several successful albums before leaving the band in the mid-2000s. His return to music, as a solo artist, was triggered by re-reading a letter from his mother, written in 1981, after leaving for Europe. Much of his work since then, including Omen, can be seen as a response to that letter. Her attempt to speak to her family and history about him.
Omen tells the story of four people, each accused of witchcraft and ostracized by their communities, who struggle to find a way back. Stylistically, Baloji embraces the Congolese tradition of witchcraft and sorcery in his magically realist approach to storytelling and visual style. But above all the film, screened this week in the Horizons section of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, 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 screenplays since around 2012, but it took me a while to get financed. I had like three projects I wanted to work on that never received funding, so I decided to do some kind of hybrid form, something that connected the structure of the films with the musical aspects, with the work I was doing with the costumes and set design. , combining a little bit of everything while waiting for the industry to basically give me a chance. That’s Why I Made Mine (short film) Zombies (in 2018), so I could try things, try to build my way of expressing myself until someone noticed. I was basically making movies as a sideline. Luckily for me, as I continued to work, I started getting some recognition. Zombie it won a few awards and people started paying attention.
I actually wrote the Omen script in a month, or like six weeks, between December 2019 and January 2020. It was after my father died, so it was kind of my way of crying. I thought: I’ll write another script that will never get financed. But this time we had the money and we made the movie!
Magic and witchcraft are at the heart of the story, is it your obsession?
Indeed. Indeed. That was really the starting point for me. I’m very obsessed with how people in a society can be objectified, can be assigned an identity at birth, put into a certain box. My name, Baloji, means “sorcerer” in Swahili, which is a difficult name to live with. It’s like being an American called “devil.” It’s like receiving something at birth. All my life dealing with the assignment of my name. I thought it was something interesting to explore, but only if it wasn’t so self-centered, just about me. So I read a lot about witchcraft and witch culture in different societies. The origin of my name, in fact, had meant man of science or woman of science. A Healer might be the best English translation. But when Christianity and the colonizers arrived, they gave the local science negative connotations, making it like black magic. So all those things, tradition, language, religion, history and how it all comes together in self-identity, that’s the subject of Omen.
Did you shoot entirely in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Yes, we had two days of filming in Belgium for the beginning of the story, but the rest in Congo. my short, Zombie, was filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so for me this was a continuation. And it’s something very important to me to work there. For many reasons: political, cultural and personal. I have family ties there. But I also think it’s important to show Africa in a different way, that we present our culture differently than it appears in the news. In the geographical structure of the film, I try to make sense of the country. We don’t mention the name of the city in the film and we basically merged two cities: the capital Kinshasa, which has about 15 million people, 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 when you’re in the heart of the city it’s more Kinshasa/New York and when you’re outside it’s more Lubumbashi/Los Angeles, more sprawling, more deserted, which is where some of the character family structure goes. I thought it was interesting to recreate the geography of our country 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 related to the fact that I worked a lot on this topic, merging real events with imagination. The Congolese situation is often extremely absurd. And I would say that my cinema has something very absurd about it. The absurdity comes from the situation, which is often so difficult that humor is the only way to deal with it.
Then it’s a matter of how I work. I come to the story from the perspective of multiple art forms: from literature, writing, music, visual arts. I consider myself primarily a writer. My first job is to make poetry. But I’m also extremely inspired by Flemish painters, for example, all these forms of visual art that allow you to let your mind speak without respecting the structure or the narrative.
Was it a bigger challenge than making an album? How does the work of a director compare to that of a songwriter and music producer?
This is probably a silly metaphor, but I would argue that if you sprint, run 100 meters, and then run a marathon, and run 44 kilometers, it’s all running but it’s not quite the same sport. The film is a marathon and a very collaborative effort. That I love. I love working with all departments, with costumes, everything. I have a background in music and I know the power 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 designer and therefore am very sensitive to beautiful typography. For me, working on a film is a constant pleasure, it’s like playing as a kid. But it takes a long time. The financing took forever, so while I waited I wrote an album, actually 4 albums, each written from the point of view of the four characters in Omen, each filling their own backstory with their own music and self-identity. It was a great tool for the actors because I gave them the scrapbook for their character and said, here’s all the energy around your character, you can listen to this expressing the feelings your character is having this or that scene. It’s not like we used that music in the movie scene, but it gave a sense of the energy.
Do you find the narrative structure of traditional European cinema too restrictive? Omen appears to combine a more traditional narrative with experimental elements in the storytelling.
Well, African cinema does not have a solid financing structure. So most (African filmmakers) have to rely on European funding most of the time and we are forced to tell the narratives in a way that European people can relate to the. In a sense, 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 direct in how they tell their stories, saying “this is our culture, this is what we do.” As African filmmakers, I think we still need to be a little more conventional. But that is slowly changing now.
I was lucky to have a producer who trusted me, but I think most people, among the funding bodies, had problems with the narrative structure of the film. We continued to fight. But it was very difficult. This is my first feature film and it’s told from four different points of view, which isn’t easy. It’s hard for people to accept this approach because we’re so used to thinking that we need a single traditional kind of narrative structure. And then there are the unrealistic and magical elements. Like in a scene, I show these girls who are paid auctioneers at funerals, who exist. And my girls cry so much they cry a little river. When people read this in a script, they say: this is not cinema, this is 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 is also available in Africa. We have access to the same knowledge, we know what’s happening in the world and we have our own perspective on it. We do not have the possibility to express our vision. When we try to be pushed to tell our stories in a way that pleases the European funding committees. Most of the commissioners didn’t understand, for example, that my characters don’t yell at their parents. They said: the way parents treat them, they need to yell, to show the conflict. I told them this is just a cultural thing you have to accept, this is not how we do things. Sadly, African cinema is not yet in the position of Asian cinema where we can tell our stories in our own way without relying on foreign funding and interference.
This interview has been edited for length and comprehension.