Born in the Republic of Congo and raised in Belgium, multimedia artist Baloji first gained international recognition with his 2019 experimental short film Zombies (also a music video for one of his songs). Baloji has consistently worked as a musician (particularly as a rapper). He is closely linked to fashion and art direction, and this is visible is his debut feature. The artist composed the music score, which was released in November in line with film’s release in France. To boot, the versatile artist created the exhibition entitled “Augurism”, inspired by Omen, currently showing in Antwerp.
Omen begins with a visually ravishing sequence. A woman crosses the screen on a horse. She stops in front of a river, puts out her breast, and pours out a mixture of blood and milk. The film then moves to Koffi (Marc Zinga), a Congolese man living in Belgium (just like Baloji himself), married to a white woman called Alice (Lucie Debay). She is pregnant with twins. One day, she shaves Koffi’s afro. That’s because Koffi is returning to Africa, and the hairdo has European associations. Koffi speaks poor Swahili, and has long lost tough with his roots. He now returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo in to carry out a tradition. He wishes to give money to his father as a gesture of gratitude for the life he gave him.
Mama Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua) and Uncle Malage (Denis Mpunga) give Koffi and Alice a frosty reception. His father is nowhere to be seen. In fact, he disappeared and is presumed dead (no corpse has ever been retrieved). Koffi has a birthmark that terrifies his own mother, and that’s one of the reasons why she sent her boy to Europe. The director’s name “Baloji” means “sorcerer” in Swahili, suggesting that the films may have autobiographical elements. The dreamlike narrative is told in a non-linear way, with some sequences being a little loose, especially one that recreates the story of Hansel and Gretel, with a black witch.
Koffi has an estranged sister estranged, Tshala (Eliane Umuhire). He wishes to reconnect with her. So, they hire a car in order to get to her house. Koffi’s desperation behind the wheel in Congo’s chaotic traffic reinforces his discomfort in the society. Later, the film switches the focus to Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), a violent gangster with magical powers. Despite their opposing personalities, Koffi and Paco become friends. They suffer a number of seizures, which strengthens their bond further. Paco dresses in pink and wears a tiara in honour of his sister Maya during her funeral. And he carries a pink coffin. We witness a beautiful and cheerful funeral ritual. That’s perhaps a nod to Ghanaian tradition, where such events are true celebrations of life.
Omen is full of original ideas and robust visual concepts, as well as subtle elements of magical realism. It’s a denunciation of European colonialism and an ode to the African diaspora. The art direction, the costumes (designed by Baloji himself) and the cinematography (signed by Joachim Philippe) are very well executed, in a film with strong productions values. It harmoniously blends traditional African masks with futuristic accessories (particularly Paco and his gang). Baloji’s Africa is retrofuturistic, and bursting with authenticity. On the other hand, the excessive number of sub of subplots can confuse viewers.
Omen showed in the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival, where it won the Best Cinematic Contribution Award. The film premiered earlier this year in Cannes, in the Un Certain Regard section, where it won the New Voice Award. It had 13 nominations for the African Movie Awards, and it is Belgium’s submissions for the Oscars in 202. The film will be distributed in the United States by Utopia, and by Aya Filmes in the United Kingdom.