Augur, the first feature film by the Belgian-Congolese creator, musician and filmmaker, has been screening in Kinshasa since the end of October. Released in theaters in Belgium this Wednesday, the film won an award at the Cannes Film Festival and is Belgium’s representative at the Oscars. We discussed its slow and difficult conception with its author and artistic director, Baloji.
Baloji imagined this film full of battles, unsaid things and reunions in 2019, upon the death of his father. And in reaction to the numerous refusals received by the Film Selection Commission. “I got fed up, I decided to make this film the way I wanted, without necessarily taking into account the codes and precepts of screenwriting.”
Despite four short films to his credit, producing Augur was an obstacle course. “At one point I had to bang my fist on the table. I told them: none of my four short films was financed by the Cinema Center. None. When I invest €50,000 of my own funds, you can’t tell me that I’m an amateur and that I’m doing all this for fun. In their minds, it was the aesthetic gesture of a rapper as if the story didn’t matter… But above all I see that the dreamlike nature of the film is complicated for some people”he concedes.
Influences from Congo, Africa and the rest of the world
“There is a form of reluctance regarding this proposal which contrasts with the naturalistic and realistic cinema to which we are accustomed in Belgium. Except, of course, Jaco Van Dormael. So this questions and divides. This film is not part of a tradition of cinema in the noble sense. I didn’t go to school, I wasn’t an assistant for ten years”he summarizes.
”There is dreaminess and symbolism and some people think that they do not necessarily have the codes. But it is time to say to ourselves that we can represent Africa other than in a miserabilist way. In the movie, Alice (Lucie Debay) greets Koffi’s uncle by saying: “Hello Uncle”. The phrase has a double meaning: it refers to the nickname that the Congolese gave to white people.”
We can also see it as her desire to get closer to her husband’s family by learning a few words in Lingala. “These different reading levels seemed interesting to me, but I saw that it left some people perplexed. When I watch Bong Joon-ho, I don’t understand everything: there are lots of jokes about North Koreans that escape me. But I discover a new universe”he said with a wave of his hand to calm the debate.
“Music, design, poetry, creation: cinema is extraordinary, it allows you to combine everything”
It must be said that Baloji’s artistic influences are sprawling, ranging from graf to rap, from the painter Pierre Soulages to the filmmakers Pedro Almodovar and Yorgos Lanthimos, including the creators Karl Lagerfeld and Martin Margiela, from the Antwerp Six group,… “There is also Barry Jenkins, whose work I love deeply. I think of many South American directors who are among the first to really work on this prism of magical realism. I could still point out a bunch more for ten years”, he jokes. He thus wishes to cite the famous (Bodys Isek) Kingelez, a visionary Congolese artist who created models of incredible futuristic cities… And the filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty to whom one of the scenes fromAugur pays a motorized homage… This multiplicity of impulses is in its nature. “I love telling others that what they do is amazing. I love collaborating with others, that’s all I do, actually.”
At the risk of no longer knowing where to turn, which path to take? Because, even before music, Baloji was already designing clothes. “I wanted to work in costumes, it was already very important to me. But when I say that, it gets drowned in a bunch of preconceived ideas of rappers, of sappers. People mix everything up and always reduce us to one dimension.”
Music, design, poetry, creation, cinema: how do we choose among all these desires?
“That’s why cinema is extraordinary: it allows you to combine all of this! It sounds a little pretentious, but too bad, I say it. The first thing I did was poetry. And it will be the last one I do in my life. I find thatAugur is a poem: a poem in images, a poem in clothing, a poem in music, but the idea of poetry always remains.”
“My film denounces the rules imposed against women, minorities or those who do not fit into the norm”
However, after a few minutes, all the magic surrounding the exile’s return to his native country disappears.
“I wanted to tell other points of view. To only tell the story of Koffi or Baloji would have been a mistake. Because in fact, it’s about the privileged. Koffi has a passport, he has a woman he loves, he can come and go. It’s interesting to enter the narration from his point of view, but then you have to confront it with that of Paco, who is a bit like his mirror. Paco takes this assignment of “sorcerer” literally and assumes it. Afterwards, there are two witches: Tshala, considered a witch, like a lot of women in Europe or Africa because, past a certain age, she does not have children. I found it interesting to have someone who decided to oppose a misogynistic tradition. The heart of my film is there more than in the question of returning home: how does this patriarchal society make you believe that this way of living is the only possible path? It is important that we realize that Koffi, despite the mistrust of his family, is not on the side of the victims. And that the one believed to be the executioner, Maman Mujia, is the first victim of this patriarchal society governed by strict rules which go against women, minorities or those who do not fit into the norm . There are plenty of mothers like this, in Africa and elsewhere. We don’t necessarily imagine all the sacrifices that lie behind it” their silences and their smiles, emphasizes Baloji.
To give thanks for their courage, the creator also imagined an album for each of the four characters in his film. The first will be released in December. But that’s (already) another story…
Interview: Karin Tshidimba, in Ghent
Alongside the theatrical release, an exhibition called Baloji Augurism can be seen at Momu in Antwerp
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