November 14, 2023
Belgium is sticking its neck out. Our Oscar candidate ‘Augure’ takes the viewer to a strange Congo, and is as fascinating as it is headstrong. You shouldn’t expect anything else from an artist and director like Baloji.
“I learned everything by watching and listening to others,” says artist-director Baloji. ‘I only went to school until I was 14. Every project is like passing a school year.’ If so, then Baloji has already obtained several doctorates at the age of 45, because over the past 25 years he has ventured into a multitude of art forms.
The Belgian Congolese – born in Lubumbashi – achieved most fame with music, first as a member of the rap group Starflam, later solo. He is also a poet, performer, fashion designer and visual artist. He has several music videos and short films to his credit. It comes as no surprise that he has now also completed a feature film.
- ‘Augure’ is the first feature film by the versatile Belgian-Congolese artist Baloji.
- In the dreamy and intense drama we follow four characters who are confronted with accusations of witchcraft in modern Congo.
- The film received the Prix de la Nouvelle Voix at the Cannes festival and is the Belgian candidate for the Oscars.
The same applies to the ambition that ‘Augure’ displays. In addition to a feature film, the project also includes four music albums – each from the eyes of a different character – and an exhibition at the MoMu in Antwerp with costumes.
‘Augure’ starts as a fairly conventional drama about a Belgian man, Koffi, who returns to his native Congo after 18 years to introduce his pregnant – and white – wife Alice to his family. From the moment he arrives, the tension is palpable. This has everything to do with the fact that he was born with a large dark spot on his face, which earned him the nickname Zabolo, sign of the devil.
But just as that story reaches a climax, Baloji switches to a completely different character, Paco, the leader of a gang of street children who walk around in pink dresses. The film will make such a narrative leap twice more, although the storylines are thematically connected.
“What the main characters share is that all four are labeled as witches or wizards,” says Baloji. ‘Because they are street children or don’t want children or have rejected their children or have different ideas about sexuality.’ According to him, that is the only thing he has in common with Koffi, besides the link with both Belgium and Congo. The name Baloji originally meant ‘men of science’, but under the influence of the Christianization of Africa it became ‘men of black magic’. Wizards.
‘Augure’ was created four years ago, when Baloji’s father passed away. ‘I was sitting surrounded by my family, grieving, and suddenly the image of tears flooding the room came to my mind. That stuck in my head and I decided to build a screenplay around it.’
At one point I thought, ‘You know what, they can go up the tree. I’m going to do what I feel like.
It was already his fourth attempt to get a film off the ground. The previous ones went nowhere, partly because the film commission did not want to finance them. ‘However, I had taken all kinds of courses to learn to write scripts that comply with the rules. At one point I thought, ‘You know what, they can go up the tree. I’m going to do what I feel like doing.’ That became ‘Augure’.’
Calling the film quirky is an understatement. Baloji not only chooses an unusual and challenging story structure, he also visually departs from the familiar paths. ‘Augure’ is overflowing with strange scenes, and these do not only have to do with traditions and codes that are unknown to the average Western European.
Trailer of ‘Augure’, the Belgian entry for the Oscars.
Baloji is not limited to African folk culture. The world he conjures up on screen also contains American traditions such as the Second Line parades from New Orleans or European folklore such as the Gilles from Binche. ‘I enjoy inventing new things based on existing elements. But I am always well aware of what exactly those elements stand for.’
‘Augure’ is therefore a distinctly surreal experience, and that is the film’s great strength. It often seems as if you are walking through a dream or a hallucination, in the tradition of Federico Fellini or David Lynch. And just like them, you are not supposed to understand everything perfectly. Baloji: ‘I didn’t want to make a realistic or naturalistic film. It is not my intention to capture Africa, nor am I part of the contemplative African cinema à la Abderrahmane Sissako. I’m more in the magical realism realm.’
That is something Belgians and Congolese have in common: surrealist traditions. ‘I live in Ghent and often go here to look at the works of the Belgian masters,’ says Baloji. ‘I’ve already gotten a lot of inspiration from it. But surrealism also runs deep in Congolese art. Just look at the shape of statues: they go far beyond reality.’
‘Augure’ plays in cinemas from this week. The exhibition ‘Baloji Augurism’ runs until June at the MoMu in Antwerp.