Baloji is a multidisciplinary artist, musician, writer and director whose first feature-length film Augure (Omen) won the 2023 Cannes New Voice Award. It is a psychedelic magical realist tale that follows a young man, Koffi, return home to reunite and reconnect with his family. Through sprawling myths and folklore, the story retains a central humanness, touching on the complexities of family and belonging, while also speaking to social themes surrounding feminine, queer and cultural identities.
A hazy sky melts into the sand in the white heat of a desert somewhere in Africa. A horse and rider canter across the screen and into a crowd of scarecrows, later to appear like effigies as the film falls from its climax. It is visually arresting from the beginning, perhaps unsurprisingly so for a multimedia artist. But the visuals were never his fundamental motivation. At the end of the day what he loves the most is telling stories.
Driven by a seemingly unceasing curiosity, Baloji is not curtailed by the boundaries of one culture, genre, or even artform. His work exists at the multiplied crossroads of everything he has ever consumed, experienced and learnt. From the European avant-garde to the folklore of his own Congolese heritage, and then to New Orleans’ neo-Congolese culture, Baloji seeks to unite it all in one common language of his own imagining.
The result is a film replete with striking cinematography, haunting soundscapes and above all a moving story. The simple sincerity of the latter pulls the film back from any arthouse meanderings, without falling into any trite commercial storylines that effectively pass as background noise. Baloji masters that balance. He retains the intrigue of an auteur and the earnestness of someone who simply has a story they long to tell. Baloji’s ability to stay true to that longing is a testament to the confidence of his artistic instinct.
Augure premieres across cinemas in the UK on Friday 26 April. The film is accompanied by an album featuring thirty-seven songs across four different points of views from the central characters in the film. The project is physically united in an exhibition at the MoMu Gallery, Antwerp, on show until 16 June 2024. Extending the film’s imaginative realism into real life, the exhibition immerses visitors physically and emotionally in the hallucinatory universe of Baloji’s imagination.
In anticipation of Augure’s UK release, we got the chance to speak to Baloji in-between press work and the completion of yet another short film. Tracing the web of his creative mind, the conversation spans everything from societal victimhood and male cowardice to his life above a video shop and the comfortable state of modern cinema.
Augure (Omen)
You mention it was difficult to get the movie off the ground, so what was it like in those early stages and what made you keep persisting?
I loved my story. I loved my characters and I just wanted to make a film to speak about that aspect of my culture.
What were the main themes you wanted to focus on?
I wanted to touch on forgiveness and consider the functions of male privilege. As a man, we often don’t realise our privilege, even as a black man compared to a woman, we don’t realise it. I thought it was interesting to build a story with a character that the audience thinks is the victim [Koffi] and another who treats him badly [his mother, Mujila], but then reverse it to understand that the mother is the first victim.
So the mother was the true victim?
Yes. I wanted the interactions between the mother and the son to convey how the way she behaves is defined by society. You probably have, just like me, five or twenty people around you that can stay in a situation where they’re unhappy, unfulfilled or uninspired, but they stay in that situation for multiple reasons. That was something I wanted to tackle because it is central to everything in our society.
Yeh, it speaks to all those other factors out of our control that make us stay in situations we probably shouldn’t or don’t want to be in.
Exactly, we all know parents that stay together for twenty years and everyone knows it is a mistake but they just do it because that’s the way it is. Now people will call it toxic, but the most toxic relationships are the ones that don’t seem so. The ones based on dependency and voids. That’s basically what the mother Mujila experiences. The dad is never there so she has to take his place. But the only way she can communicate with her kids is to use the presence of the dad as the ultimate authority.
Music seems like a huge part of your practice. The film is accompanied by an album and I know you also had a music career before moving into film, so do you tend to start a project with the music in mind, or do you begin from another point?
We started first with the narrative, with the script. It was because we were struggling to make the movie a reality that I stopped working on the music, because I’d started with this really strange idea to work on the soundtrack for a movie that would never exist. I thought it was an interesting exercise to force me to think in terms of the vision of my characters - what they’re going through, what they think where they’re going – and to do that over the course of one full album, from the point of view of a single character.
The movie explores the connection between Congolese culture and the European avant-garde. On a more personal level, as someone born in Congo but now living in Belgium, how do you live that mix of cultures?
I think that’s the reason I am doing this job. It’s basically like, I’m interested in having discussions both with somebody who is into football and with a historian who specialises in 17th century textiles - I like both equally. It makes it more interesting to take creative influences from things that are considered pop, and other things considered elitist, and to move from one to the other without questioning it.
Augure (Omen)
One of the scenes that stood out to me most was the scene when all the women are grieving the death of the father, and the room begins to flood with their tears. What was that like to film, could you talk about that?
It was something we made quite fast and smoothly. It’s the first scene that I envisioned in the writing process. I had a similar experience myself at a funeral and there was so much crying it’s like you couldn’t escape. I really wanted to work on that idea of there being so much crying that it becomes a fountain around them. I built the story on this, which gave me the poetic licence to not be realistic or documentarian, but to imagine someplace where the impossible can happen.
Is that why you were drawn to the magical realism themes?
Yes. In French we have this saying, sense of humour is the politeness of despair and I truly think poetry, too, can be the politeness of despair. I think that is what the film is doing. It’s using poetry, for example when Mujila’s breastfeeding milk is a mix of blood and milk, as a way to speak about postpartum depression. I thought it was an interesting way to tackle the various subjects.
Going back to your music, then, do you see that as a kind of poetry as well? In a different artform.
Yes it’s a different artform but when I do it with music it is also based on this idea. It is the same as when I make the visuals for the exhibition, as a way to enter into the unknown and try new things. I like to play with the absurd and surrealism. We just shot a film [premiered last Friday 19 April] that is shot in vignettes, so it looks really disconnected. It emerged from the idea that our attention spans are trained to focus only on fifteen-second long videos, so I made a film that compiles lots of fifteen-second videos in a sixteen-minute film.
Oh that’s so cool!
I know it’s crazy, they all think I’ve lost my mind! But I thought it was interesting to play with attention spans and the changing durations of our content. Music videos for example, Nia Archives might spend £100K on the video and people watch less than thirty seconds, it’s ridiculous.
So going back to the film, this was your first feature film. Did you have any nerves or any kind of imposter syndrome?
No, actually, I didn’t. Of course, there was some technical knowledge with lights and positioning that I don’t have because I didn’t study film. I could try to pretend, but everybody who is an expert knows it. But it didn’t mean I felt any imposter syndrome. To make a film is more about ideas, dialogue, script, how to structure a story and guide the actors, and the rest is a collective effort. I think we must embrace the fact it is a collective effort.
So, is collaboration an important aspect of your work?
Yes, collaboration with all the departments help you to tell the story in the best way possible and you just have to follow your instinct rather than technique, which is difficult. I made a lot of mistakes in making this film but that’s how you learn.
Augure (Omen)
Without any formal training, what kind of artistic education did you give yourself?
Ah the best way possible! I lived above a video club and a record store for eight years. The record store would always laugh at me because I hated rock music, so they showed me a lot of great rock bands. Same with the video club, I was only watching big commercial films so they taught me to like lots of movies that normally I complained were too slow or boring. I learnt to appreciate them.
Who are some filmmakers you really like or are inspired by?
Oh, I can go for days! I really like the Italian masters from the 60s and 70s. I think a lot of South America directors are pushing the boundaries. I like the Safdie brothers from the New York indie scene. Steve McQueen is my hero, he’s such a god! I like a lot of cinema but I really try to do me. Just like we learn in music, everything already exists so just do you, so I tried to recreate that in a film scope.
Could you talk to us a bit about the exhibition that accompanies the film?
There are three costumes and three props from the film, accompanied by pictures by a South African photographer that document the impact of climate change in central Africa – how countries like Congo are going from 40 days of rain to 150 days of rain in one year, and the impact of that on an unprepared society. There are also some installations that project old films and masks, lots of different things.
You’ve been working on this project since 2019, do you think it is finished now, or are you planning on taking the story further?
It’s finished. I think it’s important to close the door and open a new one. When I think of creativity I only think of Michaela Coel saying you should put yourself in danger, make stories that make you feel uncomfortable. Now I see in cinema there are a lot of people at ease, who make a film but never really engage with it.
Though the story may be finished, the response to Augure is still in motion, particularly after you won the New Voice Award at Cannes 2023. It has also been nominated to represent Belgium in the Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Oscars. That’s incredible, congratulations! What does this mean to you?
It’s really a major honour. I’m extremely proud of this, it’s really inspiring. It’s such a small budget film that we didn’t expect that at all. If you’d told me this three years ago I would’ve laughed.
Finally, you mentioned you dropped a lot of hints in the film for your daughter. Was she a big inspiration, do you do this for her?
Yes it’s true. The opening credit, BBL: Unconditional love credit since 2008 was for her. When the movie first came out, she was the only one who knew what those hints meant. I don’t know if she understood everything, she’ll need to see it in a couple of years, but she liked it!