AUGURE/OMEN #Cannes2023 Review: A Bold Fusion of Music, Magic, and Cultural Resonance — Akoroko

Belgian-Congolese multidisciplinary artist Baloji’s debut feature film, “Augure”/”Omen,” is a captivating exploration of magic, music, and meaning. Premiering at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival — the first Congolese feature film ever invited to screen in the Festival’s main selection — the multilayered exploration of social stigma, gender, and cultural identity is a testament to his poetic and musical talents, now translated into a dense cinematic form that should reward repeat viewings.

“Augure”/”Omen” is inspired by Baloji’s own experience of returning to Congo after 25 years away. He moved to Belgium as a child following his parents’ divorce. His upbringing in Liège and Brussels led him to discover hip-hop culture, eventually becoming a rapper and MC. Internationally recognized, his music, a blend of rap, funk, soul, Afrobeat, and Congolese rumba, addresses topics such as identity, migration, colonialism, and social justice.

“Augure”/”Omen” officially signals Baloji’s transition from music to film, although he has directed several music videos for his own songs and for other artists. A common thread is that they are often colorful dance-fueled jaunts between connection and isolation, reality and fantasy — themes that are woven into Baloji’s seamless transition to cinema with grace and skill.

A film that’s more of an active/participatory experience that resists reductive explication, “Augure”/”Omen” delves into the complexities of identity and belonging in a post-colonial context and exposes the patriarchal and oppressive structures that underlie witchcraft accusations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It explores the theme of identity through the characters’ struggles to find their place in a world where poverty and oppression are often blamed on curses and evil spirits.

The ensemble cast of four includes Koffi, a young man with a birthmark on his face; Tshala, a woman who refuses to have children; Mujila, an old woman who is rejected by her community; and Paco, a street kid who does magic tricks. Despite their misfortune, they find a way to guide each other away from their socially imposed destinies and into a phantasmagoria.

Its narrative centerpiece is the story of Koffi (Marc Zinga), a young Congolese man who returns from Belgium to Kinshasa with his pregnant European wife, Alice (Lucie Debay). Koffi is torn between his European upbringing and his African roots. He feels alienated from both cultures and does not know where he belongs. He wants to reconnect with his family but faces hostility from his mother who blames him for her curse. He also faces discrimination from his community which sees him as a sorcerer.

Meanwhile, Alice is also an outsider who does not understand or fit into Koffi’s family or society. She tries to support him but also feels insecure about their relationship. She also faces cultural barriers that prevent her from communicating or integrating with them.

And Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua) is also accused of being a witch, is rejected by her community, and also resents her son for abandoning her. She clings to her faith but also questions her fate.

Baloji’s name means “man of sciences” in Swahili (but evolved to also encompass sorcerer). The title “Augure”/”Omen” refers to the signs or omens that people look for to interpret their fate or destiny. The artist also has synesthesia, a condition that allows him to associate colors and sounds in his imagination. The influence of each is palpable.

It is through this trivium that he reflects his interest in the symbolic and mystical aspects of his culture in his feature film debut, interrogating issues of bi-cultural identity, and witchcraft accusations that affect many children in Congo and other parts of Africa. He found inspiration in the stories of children who were abandoned or killed by their families after accusations of sorcery. Ultimately, the film speaks to those who have to contend with ostracization based on superstition, ignorance, and fear. In “Augure”/”Omen,” they are subjected to humiliation, and abuse, as others find excuses to exert power or control over them. They are also denied justice or protection by the legal system that is corrupt or indifferent to their plight.

“Augure”/”Omen” will probably draw comparisons to Afrofuturist (or African-Futurist) works because of its combination of fantasy, history, and cultural elements from an African perspective. It’s more of a hybrid form that blends music and magic realism elements, creating a rhythmic and immersive audio-visual experience that plays with the viewer’s perception and expectations.

Additionally, it uses music as a narrative device, as a form of augury or divination, featuring original songs by Baloji as well as music by other artists such as Konono N°1, Petite Noir, and Mbongwana Star, which not only serve as background sound fodder but are also seamlessly weaved into the film’s dialogue. The film has a four-part soundtrack, where each record is written from the perspective of a different character. And the influence of a range of artists from Fela Kuti and David Bowie, to Grace Jones and Björk — all of who use music as a way of creating their own mythology or cosmology — are delightfully woven into the film’s tapestry. An entirely separate analysis of the film’s soundscape could be written.

“Augure”/”Omen” is a richly dense film that showcases Baloji’s artistic versatility and vision. Paying homage to African traditions and cultures that celebrate their own forms of magic or spirituality, it’s a film that blends music and magic realism to tell a compelling story of identity and belonging, drawing from his personal and professional experiences, and reflecting his musical and lyrical sensibilities. It delves into the sociopolitical context of central Africa incorporating unconventional narrative structures and invites viewers to think deeply about themselves and the world they live in. We’ll be digesting this one for some time.

“Augure”/”Omen” is making its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

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