Screening at Cannes: Baloji’s ‘Omen’ Explores Family and Culture Through Magical Realism

The Belgian-based director, writer, musician and actor considers the questions left unanswered after his father’s death in a film about identity and survival.

Women dressed in pink and wearing strang masks lounge in the back of a school bus with the seats removed.
Baloji’s work is visually striking. Courtesy Wrong Men

Belgium-based Baloji’s film work is relatively new, but his extensive background in poetry and music fuel his cinematic endeavors. He emerged as a rapper and MC in Belgium over 20 years ago—co-founding Starflam at 15—and his 2008 debut solo album, Hotel Impala, was conceived as a response to a letter from his estranged Congolese mother following twenty-five years of absence. Two albums followed: Kinshasa Succursale in 2011 and 64 Bits and Malachite in 2015.

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More recently, the mononymic artist has applied his innate understanding of rhythm, language and mood from the audiological sphere into the immersive audio-visual realm. Omen, which is an official selection for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard, explores sorcery and magic, and what it means to belong, whether in the place you were born or in the very broadest sense, in this existence.

In Swahili, Baloji means “man of science,” but as a result of colonialism and Christian evangelization, it came to mean “sorcerer.” However, the filmmaker is quick to deny that Omen’s protagonist, Koffie, was in any way based on him, though he acknowledges that some people will come to that conclusion.

“It’s a movie that talks about patriarchy through sorceresses and witches,” he says. “Koffie has a winestain [birthmark] on his cheek that condemns him as a sorcerer, and his mother is considered as a witch for different reasons. In many countries in central Africa, poverty is blamed on a child bringing a curse on the family. It’s the Hansel and Gretel metaphor.”

A man in a brown suit and maroon tie stands next to a blond woman in a white dress with black stripes outdoors in front of green trees.
A scene from ‘Omen.’ Courtesy Wrong Men

The genesis of Omen

Omen, which was produced by Belgium’s Wrong Men in co-production with Serendipity Films, the Congo’s Tosala Films, the Netherlands’ New Amsterdam Film Company, France’s Special Touch Studios, Germany’s Radical Media and South Africa’s Big World Cinema, represents a twist of good fortune for Baloji. Though he has had no formal education in film, he completed several film projects with a Belgian company between 2012 and 2018—experiencing repeated rejections in the process.

Undaunted, Baloji self-financed and produced four short films. One of those, Zombies, a colorful dance-fueled jaunt between connection and isolation, won several awards and was selected at BFI, Rotterdam and Oberhausen. That, in turn, gave him the confidence he needed to create Omen.

“I wrote the first version of this script over six weeks in 2019 after my dad’s passing, and it kept growing until the shooting day,” he admits.

In the film, Koffie, a young Congolese man, returns from his adopted home of Belgium to Kinshasa in the hopes of fleshing out the scant knowledge he has of his family. Mark Zinga, a Congolese actor based in Belgium, played the protagonist.

“Mark is a really experienced actor with an amazing technique from the theatre tradition,” Baloji tells me. “He’s supported by a lot of Congolese actors who I came to discover last year while casting.”

Zinga was joined on the project by fellow Belgian actor Lucie Debay, Rwanda’s Eliane Umuhire, Yves-Marina Gnahoua and Marcel Otete Kabeya. Together, they depict the consequences of being accused of witchcraft and sorcery—shared circumstances that lead them to one another and weave their singular stories into a shared experience.

A man with an asymmetrical haircut wears a gray suit with no labels and no shirt underneath.
Musician and actor Baloji is now feature filmmaker. Courtesy Baloji

Who is Baloji?

The best way to describe Baloji might be “multidisciplinary artist.” He’s a rapper, singer and songwriter. A natural in front of the camera, he was nominated for a Magritte Award for Most Promising Actor for his role in Frederike Migom’s film Binti, which screened at Sundance. Behind it, he playfully melds music and visuals.

“If it’s not fun, I’m not interested,” he says. “I created a hybrid form by adding music, and a magic realism element that plays with narrative structures, but people are accustomed to the past twenty-five years of realistic, naturalistic cinema focusing on one or two characters.”

That makes it difficult to push the format’s borders and create something different, he adds. On the subject of borders, Baloji resides in Ghent but regularly makes the eight-hour flight to Congo DRC, and it was a natural and easy choice for him to film Omen there.

“Congo is such a divided country. In Kinshasa, which is a megalopolis of 15 million people,” Baloji says. “It’s the economic heart of the city, but there are no roads. I created a location that doesn’t exist… that goes unnamed.”

Like Baloji’s surname. Knowing he does not wish to associate himself with his family appellation, I am unsure what response I’ll get when I ask Baloji about his father.

“The passing of my dad had a very strange impact on me,” he responds without hesitation. “We live in a society where mourning technically lasts three or four days, but I was not affected for the first three. I was disconnected because I was not close to my dad.”

Intellectually, he thought it was interesting to consider how we deal with trauma and how mourning has no rules. After his initial numbness wore off, however, the women who traditionally engage in crying ceremonies in some Arabic cultures came to Baloji’s father’s house, and it was with their help that he was finally able to be vulnerable and to grieve—an experience that is retold in Omen.

Speaking about the film’s Cannes selection, Baloji sounds nonplussed, but his perplexity comes off as a little forced, as if he might be nervous to let the frisson of excitement loose.

“It’s my first time going to Cannes,” he says, which suggests it won’t be the last. “I think I’ll be stressed out the day of the screening.”

More than stressed, though, he’s excited to take his 13-year-old daughter to the screening. Unbeknownst to her, he scattered little visual homages to her throughout the movie.

Screening at Cannes: Baloji’s ‘Omen’ Explores Family and Culture Through Magical Realism