A dust storm rises in a vast blank desert. A figure on horseback appears in the distance, wrapped in black robes. A low whistling sound follows her as she crosses a gathering of straw scarecrows erected on wooden crosses and reaches a shallow basin of water formed by potholes in the desert. She dismounts, brings out her breast and discharges plumes of thick cloudy milk, tinged pink into the water. The substance fills the pool like smoke. Later, Mama Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua) will awake in a dream to this desert scene, scarecrows ablaze, to see her son carrying the empty coffin of her late husband by the mine from which his body was never recovered from. Omen (Augure), the Belgian-Congolese filmmaker Baloji’s impressive debut feature, which premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and which was the first Congolese feature film ever to be invited to screen at the festival’s main section, is a highly compelling, ambitious and realised family drama that investigates the cultural legacy of witchcraft accusations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The film opens by following Koffie (Mark Zinga) a Congolese man living in Belgium as he somewhat anxiously prepares to journey home to his family to introduce them to his European wife, Alice (Lucie Debay). When the couple arrive at a family gathering, they are dubiously received, and once Koffie experiences a sudden nosebleed while holding a family member’s young infant those around him turn instantly. We watch as Koffie, whose family have considered him touched by evil spirits since birth, the mark on his cheek denoting a sign of the devil, is dragged by those around him into a religious ceremony where he is harshly accused of using magic to curse the child. In these moments the families’ fears are presented are provincial in relation to a contemporary western paradigm, in relation at Koffie and Alice. But as the film continues, it transitions away from the space-time that the couple represent and draws us into another dimension in order to tell the stories of his sister, Tshala (Eliane Umuhire); mother Mujila; and a street kid, Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya) who have each experienced accusations of witchcraft and social ostracism.
Filmed between Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, cities which are divided by some 3000 miles and political tension, Baloji creates a kind of non-space which encompasses a place defined by its mining industry, religion, colonial and neo-colonial legacies. By setting the first half of film across the days leading up to Easter Sunday, the death and resurrection of Christ, the film situates itself within a sort of hauntological framework, an eerie zone where time collapses and gives way to past memories. Baloji also blends elements of Magical Realism, with European Folklore, and images of New Orleanian Mardi-Gras street parades, in order to explore ideas of the symbolic. Little boys who live on the street run around in pink dresses and tiaras practicing sorcery and organising public wrestling matches with neighbouring gangs of children. Baloji’s style is Afrofuturism and Angela Carter. Great attention is paid to the soundtrack of this film, which features original songs by Baloji, who is well known as a rapper, as well as music by artists such as such as Konono N°1, Petite Noir, and Mbongwana Star, which infuse a sensitivity and understanding of the perspectives of each character. This is a deeply intriguing, visually striking film which perceptively explores spirituality and family estrangement. There is magic in this film, and hope of reconciliation.
Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.