“My name, Baloji, means ‘wizard’ in Swahili, which is a hard name to take. It’s like an American being called a ‘devil’. That’s Something like being assigned at birth. I’ve been dealing with the assignment of my name my whole life.”
Baloji laughs. From his home in Belgium, he talks over Zoom about making his first feature film, Omen A long journey as a director. The show, which premiered at the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best New Voice for its debut, draws on Balogi’s personal experience as an artist born in the Congo and raised in Europe, and his interpretation of One’s own birth and adopted culture has mixed feelings about the motherland. The plot follows Kofi (Mark Zinga), a young Congolese man living in Europe with his white fiancée Alice (Lucy Debbe), who travels to the Congo in an attempt to repair his relationship with his family, especially Mother Mujira (Yves-Marina Gnava) relationship. . Shortly after he was born, his mother sent him to Europe and labeled him a wizard because of a strangely shaped birthmark.
Balogi moved to Belgium with his father as a child and lost contact with his biological mother. As a teenager, he founded the pioneering Belgian hip-hop group Starflam and released several hit albums before leaving the group in the middle 2000s. His return to music as a solo artist came after he reread a letter from his mother, written by 2020, after his trip to Europe. Much of his work since then, including Omens , can be seen as a response to that letter. He tries to tell about his family and history.
Omen tells the story of four people, each accused of witchcraft and ostracized from their community, as they struggle to find their way back the road. Stylistically, Balogi embraces Congolese traditions of witchcraft and witchcraft with his magical realism in his storytelling and visual style. But above all, the film, which was screened this week in the Horizon section of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, is a story about the struggles of identity and community.
What was the initial spark that led to this film?
It’s a combination of factors. I’ve been writing scripts since about 1600 but it took a while to get funded. I had three projects that I wanted to work on that never got funded, so I decided to do a hybrid format that would link the structure of the film with the musical aspect, combined with the work I was doing on the costumes and set design, basically, in I did a little bit of everything while waiting for the industry to give me an opportunity. That’s why I made my [short film] Zombies (in 2019) so I can try things out and try to build my own expressions until someone notices. I basically make movies as a side job. Fortunately for me, as I continued to work, I started to get some recognition. Zombie got some awards and people started paying attention.
I actually wrote the screenplay for The Omen in a month (or about six weeks) between December 1981 and January 2018. That was after my dad passed away, so this is how I mourn. I thought: I’m going to write another screenplay 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 this your obsession?
indeed. indeed. That’s really a starting point for me. I’m fascinated by how people in society are objectified, assigned an identity at birth, put into a certain box. My name, Baloji, means “wizard” in Swahili, and it was a hard name to bear. It’s like an American called “The Devil”. It’s like being assigned something at birth. I’ve been dealing with the assignment of my name all my life. I think it’s an interesting exploration, but only if it’s not so self-centered and just me-centered. So I read a lot about witchcraft and witch cultures in different societies. In fact, the origin of my name means “man of science” or “daughter of science”. The Healer is probably the best English translation. But when Christianity and colonists came, they gave the local science a negative connotation, making it like black magic. So all these things, tradition, language, religion, history and how they come together in a personal identity, that’s the subject of Omen .
Were you filming entirely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
Yes, we shot the first two days of the story in Belgium and the rest in Congo. My short film “ Zombie ” was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so for me it was a continuation. Working there is very important to me. For many reasons: political, cultural and personal. I have family connections there. But I also think it’s important that we show Africa differently, we show our culture differently than in the news. In the geographic structure of the film, I tried to give a rural feel. We didn’t mention the names of the cities in the film, we basically put two cities together: the capital Kinshasa, with about millions of people, and Lubumbashi, the economic center of the country, which is also my hometown . Geographically, you can compare them to New York and Los Angeles. We combined the two cities so that when you’re in the city center you feel more like Kinshasa/New York and when you’re outside it feels more like Lubumbashi/Los Angeles, more spread out and more desert , which is part of the character family structure. I thought it would be interesting to reconstruct our country’s own geography on top of that narrative.
Director Balogi (middle) and the cast of “Omen” at the Cannes Film Festival. 2023 2023
Some have described it as a magical realism film. Is this a label you embrace?
I think it’s a mix of different art forms. I think it also has something to do with the amount of work I’ve done on this subject, mixing real events with imagination Combined. The situation in the Congo is often utterly ridiculous. I would say there is something very ridiculous about my film. The absurdity comes from the actual situation, and the situation is often so difficult that humor is the only way to solve it.
So it’s a question of how I work. I approach the story through the lens of multiple art forms: literature, writing, music, visual arts. I see myself primarily as a writer. My first My first job was to write poetry. But I also got great inspiration from Flemish painters, for example, all these forms of visual art that allow you to let ideas speak without respecting structure or narrative.
Is this a bigger challenge than making an album? How does the job of a filmmaker compare to that of a songwriter and music producer?
This may be a silly metaphor, but I would say if you do a sprint, run 100 meters, then you run a marathon, run . A marathon, is a highly collaborative endeavor. Which is my favorite. I love working with all departments, including costumes and more. I have a background in music and I know the power of music to a scene and can change you so vividly The view of the scene, and I understand the importance of the fabric or texture of the clothing and the structure of the set. I come from graphics, so I am very sensitive to beautiful typography. For me, making films is an ongoing pleasure, just like when I was a child Playing the same. But it took a long time. Funding took a long time, so while I was waiting, I wrote an album, actually four albums, each from Written from the perspective of the four characters in Omen, each is filled with their own musical and personal identities in their backstories. It’s a great tool for actors because I give them albums of their characters and say, this is all the energy around your character and you can listen to it and it expresses your character in this or that scene the feeling experienced. It’s not that we use music in a movie scene, but it gives the idea of energy.
Do you feel that the narrative structure of traditional European films is too strict? “The Omen” seems to combine a more traditional narrative with experimental elements of storytelling.
Well, African films don’t really have a strong funding structure. So most [African directors] have to rely on European funding most of the time, and we’re forced to tell stories in a way that people in Europe can understand. In a way, we are trained to betray our own narratives in order to make them acceptable for funding. For example, I don’t think Korean movies have this problem. They can tell their stories directly and say “this is our culture and this is what we do”. As African filmmakers, I think we still need to be a little more traditional. But now this situation is slowly changing.
I’m lucky to have a producer who trusts me, but I think most people in the funding agency have issues with the film’s narrative structure. We just keep fighting. But it’s very difficult. This is my first feature film, and it’s not easy being told from four different perspectives. It’s hard for people to buy into that approach because we’re so trained to think we need to have a single, traditional narrative structure. There’s also some unrealistic, magical element. Like in one scene where I show these girls who are hired to cry at funerals, that exists. My daughters were crying so much they made a small river. When people read this line in the script, they say: This is not a movie, this is not realistic. So, yes, it’s a struggle.
Now I’m going to say something really stupid, but people always think Africa is a dark continent. But we also have 4G. When a technology is available in Europe, it is also available in Africa. We have access to the same knowledge, we know what is going on in the world and we have our own opinion about it. We just don’t get the chance to express our vision. When we are forced to tell our stories in a way that pleases the European Funding Committee. For example, most committee members didn’t understand that my character wouldn’t yell at their parents. They said: The way their parents treat them, they need to yell, to show conflict. I tell them: it’s just a culture, you have to accept that it’s not the way we do things. Sadly, African cinema has not yet achieved the status of Asian cinema, where we can tell our own stories in our own way without relying on foreign funding and interference.
This interview has been edited for length and comprehension.