What’s in a name?
For the Congolese Belgian rapper-turned-filmmaker Baloji, whose directorial debut, “Omen,” bows in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section on May 22, it’s a question that poses itself whenever flustered immigration officials inspect his passport at the airport in Congo. “Always the same question, every time,” Baloji tells Variety. “Do you know what it means?”
In the pre-colonial era, baloji meant “man of science” in Swahili, but the word became corrupted by Christian evangelists during the years of Belgian colonial rule. Today it is more akin to a man of occult sciences and sorcery. “Some people of faith do not dare to say my name in public for fear of invoking evil spirits and the suspicions that may accompany it,” the director says. “In such an animistic culture it is equivalent to being called devil or demon in the West.”
He admits it took a long time for him to come to terms with the stigma attached to that moniker, acknowledging now, “That name influenced the person I am.” Nowhere is that clearer than in Baloji’s startling directorial debut, a kaleidoscopic portrait of four characters accused of witchcraft that uses arresting visuals and magical-realist flourishes to blur the line between fantasy and reality.
The film centers on Koffi, played by Marc Zinga (“Tori and Lokita,” “Dheepan”), a Belgian man who returns to his native Congo to make peace with his estranged family while struggling to navigate the traditions of his ancestral land. Pic is produced by Belgian company Wrong Men (“Zero Fucks Given,” “Annette”) and co-produced by Tosala Films, New Amsterdam, Special Touch Studios, Serendipity, RadicalMedia and Big World Cinema. Memento Intl. is handling world sales.
Baloji was born in Lubumbashi, Congo, in 1978, and was sent to live with his step family in Belgium at the age of 3. Separated from his birth parents, he had a troubled childhood and dropped out of school by the the time he was 15. But after discovering hip-hop, he rose to stardom with the influential Belgian group Starflam and then struck out on his own with his first solo album, “Hotel Impala,” which was released in 2007.
That year marked a turning point for the young artist, who received a letter from his estranged mother in Congo. It was the start of a rapprochement with his birth country, which would begin to inform his music and shape his visual aesthetic.
Despite a flourishing hip-hop career, Baloji was gradually drawn to cinema. As early as 2012, he had three scripts in development, but “it was very, very difficult to get funding,” he says, and all three projects died on the vine.
That might have been for the best. His first scripts, by the director’s own admission, skewed conventional, and for a multi-disciplinary artist with a background in fashion, art and design, it took time to discover his cinematic voice — to “make films that combine all the art forms that define me as a person,” he says.
He self-financed four short films that allowed him to explore “hybrid forms of presentation,” including his 2019 breakout “Zombies,” a futuristic short set in a dystopian Kinshasa that played at the BFI London film festival and was awarded at Clermont-Ferrand, among other fests.
Now, with his feature directorial debut premiering at the most prestigious film festival on the planet, Baloji is ready to reinvent himself — and seize the spotlight again. “When you are labeled as a musician, it means you’re not a movie director. Everybody puts you in a box,” he says. “It took time for the industry to recognize me.”