Omen (Augure) review – Baloji offers secrets and sorcery in Congolese homecoming

Estimated read time 3 min read

Congolese-born rapper, musician and film-maker Baloji (né Serge Baloji Tshiani) was a prizewinner at Cannes last year with this feature directing debut: a dynamic, teemingly populated, multistranded and tonally elusive picture which I initially thought would benefit from comparisons with Jordan Peele’s horror classic Get Out. In fact, it’s more complicated than that.

Koffi (Marc Zinga) is a Congolese man living in Belgium and married to a white woman, Alice (Lucie Debay). They are about to have twins and Koffi feels that he cannot put it off any further: whatever his family will think, the couple must journey back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to let them see Alice and let them get used to the idea. It particularly means propitiating his fiercely conservative mother Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua). He takes care to shave off his westernised afro, and even brings them a financial tribute, or “dowry”, of thousands of euros.

But at a tense welcome lunch (at which his father is mystifyingly not present), Alice learns that her husband’s childhood nickname was “zabolo”, or sorcerer, and when poor Koffi has a nosebleed and splatters blood over his sister’s baby, the terrified family’s simmeringly xenophobic dislike of Koffi taking a white wife explodes into irrational horror. Then and there, he is dragged into an exorcism ceremony, supposedly to save the innocent baby from his evil eye, all this in front of the aghast Alice. It is a preposterous but scary and humiliating ritual which Koffi must patiently endure so as not to make things worse.

This bizarre situation is not treated with irony or black-comic horror but as part of a complex, serious story. A second section explains the life of a street kid called Paco, with whom Koffi and Alice cross paths and who is traumatised by the death of his kid sister at the hands of a rival gang who affect the leopardskin clothing and headgear of the late President Mobutu. (It’s the first time I’ve seen this image on the movie screen since Leon Gast’s documentary When We Were Kings, about the Ali/Foreman rumble in the jungle in what in the 1970s was known as Zaire.) Another segment explains the life of Koffi’s equally alienated sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire) who is about to emigrate to South Africa with her husband; they have an open relationship, but what her sisters call “this polyamory weirdness” has given her an STD. Finally, Koffi and Tshala’s mother takes centre stage.

The whole concept of a culture-clash is questioned and undermined by Baloji; culture, heritage, nationality and identity are all shapeshifting concepts here. Perhaps Omen doesn’t completely hang together but it is bold, risky, exciting film-making.


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