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Baloji, the Belgian-Congolese rapper, explores a number of familiar themes with an artistic, impressionistic edge in his directorial debut Omen (Augur).
Premiering in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, the magical-realist drama addresses displacement and belonging through four characters who have been ostracized by their communities. The musician draws from his personal experiences and uses a refined visual language in his short films, such as the one from 2018 Zombieto create a captivating story.
Kinetic and full of promise.
Place: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Launch: Marc Zinga, Lucie Debay, Eliane Umuhire, Yves-Marina Gnahoua, Marcel Otete Kabeya
1 hour and 30 minutes
The journey begins with Koffi (Marc Zinga), a young Congolese living in Europe with his white girlfriend Alice (Lucie Debay). We see him preparing for an upcoming trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he hopes to change his relationship with his family. Koffi’s birthmark—a big Rorschach stain—scared his mother, Mujila (a sharp Yves-Marina Gnahoua), when he emerged from the womb. She labeled him a sorcerer and sent him to Europe.
Like Koffi, Baloji has faced a similar kind of estrangement. The artist’s name means “sorcerer” in Swahili and, in interviews, he has attributed this to his interest in magic, witchcraft and the way society assigns labels. Baloji’s curiosity translates into confidence as a director. He leans into a kinetic visual language and associative sequence, bringing the non-linear and energetic style of his short films to Omen.
Koffi, who hasn’t spoken to his family in years, worries about the reunion. Not wanting anything to go wrong, he took Swahili lessons and saved up money to pay his father the equivalent of a dowry before marrying Alice. Koffi quietly hopes that the news of his fiancée’s pregnancy will soften his parents and make them more accepting of him.
When the cosmopolitan couple land in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Baloji, with the help of DP Joachim Philippe, effectively portrays their sensory overload. Forgotten by Koffi’s younger sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire), Koffi and Alice rent a car and drive through the streets of the unnamed city. Koffi’s instability behind the wheel leads to collisions and near-collisions. His cropped hair, stubble, and sweat-stained shirts mark him out as an outsider.
The situation only gets worse when Koffi and Alice arrive at Koffi’s mother’s house to an indifferent crowd of family members. Here, Baloji, who also wrote the screenplay, demonstrates a particular acuity when it comes to rendering the experience of the African diaspora. Koffi becomes the subject of strong and cutting comments about his hair and indirect ones whispered about his fiancée. In one particularly impressive scene, when Koffi asks to hold his newborn nephew, Baloji nimbly and humorously shows the disconnect between the protagonist and his family. The baby’s mother agrees, but as the camera pans, she sees her pleading eyes trying to get Mujila’s attention. Koffi coos to the boy, unaware that he’s still a stranger to his family.
After a nosebleed causes Koffi to shed blood on the baby – a moment that sends the family into a panic – he has to see a local priest for cleanliness and accountability. Baloji uses Koffi’s agnostic attitude towards these rituals to comment on the allure of modernity and the anchoring of tradition in African societies. The tension between the two undergirds Omen, although Baloji’s film sees them as complementary forces; in fact, tradition and modernity are not binary for young Africans. In a later section, which follows Koffi’s sister Tshala, the young woman goes to the same local priest to sort out a medical problem. Like Koffi, Tshala considers herself distant from the traditions of their upbringing. She is reluctant to go to the priest, but she does anyway; that eventual acquiescence reveals the same internal tension of hers.
Omen switches from Koffi to the story of Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), a boy who has monetized his label as a sorcerer. It’s a wizard that Koffi and Alice pass on a walk through town. In Omenas in Zombie, Baloji associative transitions reward a lot of attention. The camera deviates from the couple in heated conversation through the market, through the crowd and then close to Paco and his gang. These tracking shots give the film a sense of propulsive movement.
That constant feeling of forward movement coupled with energetic music (composed by Liesa Van der Aa) and intricate costume design (Elke Hoste, Baloji) make Omen easy to be fascinated. The film looks like a mixtape, a collage of samples organized by the director’s eclectic taste. Baloji not only draws on his experiences in Europe as a Congolese musician, but also borrows from the United States: many of the costumes in the parade scenes were inspired by the colorful palette of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
OmenThe narrative of is similarly experimental, but doesn’t always feel rewarding. Baloji’s diffuse storytelling and penchant for the surreal can make the main narrative difficult to follow. Even when the relationships between Koffi, Tshala, Paco and Mujila (subject of the final section of the film) seem clear, too many open questions and tricks leave us in doubt. He made me wonder if Omen it might have worked better as an anthology of shorts, like the centerpiece of the New York African Film Festival Hyperlink — where links are suggested but not required. Baloji has constructed four captivating characters, persuasively portrayed by these performers, but trying to figure out where their arcs overlap, even faintly, too often distracts from the beauty before us.