Baloji, the Congolese jack-of-all-trades, in the running for the Oscars with “Augure”, Jeune Afrique
Baloji, the Congolese jack-of-all-trades, in the running for the Oscars with “Augure”
Above all, do not limit Baloji to his career as a rapper, he would immediately call you to order. Poet, author, composer, beatmaker, screenwriter, actor, performer, director and stylist… This is the range of activities that he likes to carry out in his biography on YouTube. “When we are multidisciplinary, we are perceived as undisciplined. We are often made fun of. But it’s a quality and not a defect,” he claims in a thick golden bomber jacket drowning his endless silhouette, a large felt hat surrounding his face.
The Belgian-Congolese, however, first made a name for himself in the world of hip-hop, from dance to graffiti, and within the Belgian rap group Starflam, at only 15 years old. Thirty years, three albums solo and four to come, a slew of clips, short films and commercials later, he says he is still affiliated with urban music that suffers from prejudices. “The genre remains assimilated to something for teenagers, which is neither respected nor respectable,” points out this 45-year-old jack-of-all-trades, who is still seeking legitimacy.
Swiss army knife
Baloji says it took twelve years for his film to come to fruition. But this resourceful child, who left school at 14 and the family home a year later, ended up giving birth toAugur, as unclassifiable as its author. For once, the artist used the Swiss army knives to make this film with only 1,2 million euros. “For lack of means, I of stick to makeup, but also to costume. We had to be creative with the decor and the clothes, be in the DIY [Do it yourself] culture,” he relates. This self-taught man did not follow a film school course or be a first assistant on a shoot. A path that is “crippling for the industry”, according to him. “Moreover, people expected me to make a film in the dynamic of Grand Corps Malade andAbd al-Malik with an autobiographical character. But I didn't want to. »
This choral film in the form of a mystical tale focuses on the trajectory of four people prey to accusations of witchcraft. Here, voodoo rites and beliefs oppose each other à modernity, through female characters who try to free themselves from family traditions by brandishing progressive ideologies such as polyamory. “Two black women are at the heart of my narrative device, they embody intersectional feminism. » Baloji does not hesitate to let go of the big concepts to decipher his characters, which are the subject of four concept albums which accompany the release of the film.
“Augury is not wordy like French feature films. I worked on the language of the body, its musicality,” he theorizes. But this film with little talk nevertheless wants to say too much, even if it means confusing the narrative with (a little too) contemplative images. A proposal which nevertheless forms part of the continuity of Baloji's work. His short film Zombies, released in 2019 presented itself as “a journey between hope and dystopia in a hallucinated Kinshasa”. With Augur, same modus operandi.
The filmmaker invites us to travel to a fantasized Africa. An extraordinary trip that looks like an extended clip, where polished sequences and paintings come straight out of a fashion magazine come together which, despite its author's claims, ended up seducing institutions. His proposal earned him the New Voice Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023 in the “Un Certain Regard” category, but also the Directing Prize at the Angoulême Festival.
After Beyoncé (Black is King) and Marvel (Black Panther), Africa continues to be the breeding ground for imaginary and hallucinatory representations à through the eye of Baloji, who nevertheless says he is concerned by current events in his country. “I have returned to Congo every year since 2009. I have seen the country evolve, the Kabila father and son transition, and I observe with great attention the period we are experiencing as the elections approach,” he warns.
However, it is far from the reality of the territory that he portrays his story, borrowing from the codes of magical realism dear to the new generation of African filmmakers, such as Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy. “Ramata is close to a Toni Morrison or a Maryse Condé and her I, Tibuta, Witch. We have different sensitivities, he emphasizes. For my part, I created a totally dreamlike geography. The story takes place in two cities in reality separated by 3 kilometers and which are only one. This is a response to the government, which ensures that Kinshasa and Lubumbashi are neither reachable by road, rail or air, unless you spend a more expensive ticket than to go to Europe. There has been a secessionist desire since the end of colonialism, and I found it interesting to put all of this to the test of storytelling. »
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“The hypocrisy of so-called African cinema”
However, the plot begins in Belgium, in a setting with a naturalistic aesthetic. Koffi is preparing for his big return to the country, after fifteen years of absence, to pay the family dowry and present his wife Alice to proven relatives. This white character was not chosen at random. “I withdrew it when presenting the scenario to the commissions, but the identification process must have had difficulty operating. So I added it, that’s what a certain type of viewer expects,” he reasons. Perceived as a zabolo (a magician) by his family, due to his wine stain and his epileptic seizures, Koffi begins a journey which soon turns into bad trips. “Koffi is guilty, he embodies the fragility of the diaspora with regard to its identity, he suffers the Judeo-Christian weight and submits completely to it. This is my antithesis. »
However, like Koffi, Baloji was born in Lubumbashi, and lives in Belgium since 1981. And like him, again, this bird of ill omen whose first name means “group of sorcerers” in Tshiluba, wishes to ward off fate. “I observe how we can reverse stigmas. A year and a half ago, when we asked a Congolese to pronounce my first name out loud, it was complicated. But today, there is no longer any complex,” realizes the man who saw himself escorted by elected representatives of the Congolese government during the rise of the Cannes marches. “These images have gone viral. We first presented the film in preview in Congo, and it was super important. There, we are recognized for our music, not for our cinema, which remains inaccessible territory. »
Presented as le first Congolese fiction feature film at Cannes, Augur will not, however, represent Congo at the Oscars. Due to the lack of a substantial catalog of films, the country is not recognized by the academy. “It is the first financing country to win and give nationality to a film,” explains the one who received the support of French-speaking Belgians and the Dutch. “This is the hypocrisy of so-called African cinema. » The filmmaker is, however, proud to see things speed up in Congo with the project to create a local committee. A procedure that he owes to the international recognition of his film. A revenge for the artist who is already working on writing a new project.
Augur, by Baloji, in French cinemas on 29 November.
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