Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Kaleidoscopic Picture of Africa Here and Now

Omen (2023) - Baloji Omen Omen, a new film by Belgian rapper, Baloji, presents a compendium of pan-African experience told in a vibrant palette. It addresses variety of different issues in modern day Africa: African diaspora, colonialism, youth gang, sexuality, tradition, progress, among other things. You won’t see any other films this unique and different, this year.

The film starts with Koffi (Marc Zinga), cutting his sizable afro off as he prepares to travel to his home country with his pregnant Belgian wife, Alice. They are expecting twins. He is seen practicing his Swahili. It will be a tense trip for him because he hadn’t been back home for many years and now must present their biracial marriage to his family and get their blessings. Also, they need to give $5,000 dowry to his parents as it is a custom.

It is a total chaos when they get to the unnamed African city (the film is shot in bustling Kinshasa, in part). His very busy sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire of Neptune Frost) doesn’t pick them up at the airport and the young couple must navigate the crowded city in their rental car. They first drive out to the coal mine where Koffi’s father works but it turns out that it’s his day off. It becomes a running joke that Koffi’s father is never around every time he wants to see him.

No one, in their extended family, including his stern mother, Mujila, seems to be happy to see them. Things get a lot worse than they anticipated at the family luncheon, when Koffi accidentally nosebleeds (due to stress) on one of his sisters’ new baby. Born with a large purple mark on his face, Koffi is known to be a sorcerer from his mother’s side of the family. The religious elders, practicing a mix of Christianity and shamanism, perform a gruesome ritual on him in full costume that involves a head mask and nails, to lift his curse while Alice helplessly protests.

Koffi and Alice cross paths with a pink dress wearing street gang, Goonz, headed by Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya). Still mourning the death of his little sister, Paco is in a fierce turf war against a rival gang. They have to fight out their differences in the makeshift wrestling ring under the mountain of coal.

With multiple storylines and characters, Omen introduces a different kind of storytelling that the Western filmmaking is not used to. Much like Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’s Neptune Frost couple years back, the film is not bound to a straightforward narrative. Presenting a multicultural society in flux, where things clash with each other for dominance, the film’s colors and texture vie for your attention. It takes everything from everywhere – from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and multiple other African nations, even from the Creole culture of Louisiana.

The film is mainly told through sensations and visual poetry. It’s in Mujila’s breastfeeding the river in the beginning of the film with purple milk as purple milk slowly spills out. It’s in a decrepit school bus full of pink dress wearing street urchins violently being towed. It’s in a group of women mourners crying until the floor of the house is ankle deep with their tears. It’s in witch doctor trying to exorcise a couple with sexually transmitted disease by painting their bodies and pelting them with a tree branch soaked in palm oil.

Omen is a truly unique experience to be had. Using the magical realism and symbolism steeped in tradition old and new, the film is a kaleidoscopic picture of bustling Africa that is here and now.

Omen plays as part of Cannes 2023’s Un Certain Regard section.