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Witch Hunted

Festival de Cannes

Omen (2023)

This has been quite a year for Baloji in the West. First one of his songs was used on the soundtrack of “Magic Mike’s Last Dance;” and now his first film has won a special New Voice prize in the Un Certain Regard track at the Cannes Film Festival, to reward his vision and encourage him to continue with his career. This film is also the first in the history of Cannes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a point the head of the festival, Thierry Fremaux, made pains to highlight. When Baloji introduced the film he was visibly shaking with nerves, but he needn’t have. This is a movie that manages to both be on the inside and the outside of a place – a difficult trick but one that’s achieved with flair. “Omen” is a very strong debut, and the jury was right to send such an encouraging message.

Koffi (Marc Zinga) lives in Europe with his French-speaking white partner, Alice (Lucie Debay). She is pregnant with his twins so it’s now or never – in order for Koffi to marry the woman of his choosing he has to pay his father the equivalent of a dowry; and this needs to be done before the babies are born. But Koffi has been alienated from his family for a long time, for reasons Lucie doesn’t fully appreciate due to the cultural gap, and then on top of that the trip gets off to a bad start. Koffi’s sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire) fails to meet them at the airport. They get stuck in traffic behind a parade thrown by street kids organizing a boxing match. One of the gangs is led by Paco (an excellent Marcel Otete Kabeya), who dresses himself and his crew in the pink dresses beloved by his late little sister. The rivalry with the other gang of street kids is not a joke, though the other gang leader, Simba, escalates things quickly past the agreed rules of engagement.

Koffi tries to find his father first but the man is nowhere, deliberately, to be found. When they finally arrive at the family party, his mother Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua) turns her back on them and other family members cheerfully refer to Koffi as a demon. When Alice asks to hold a cousin’s baby the woman can’t refuse, that is, until Koffi has a sudden nosebleed and some drops spill on the child. Things suddenly get very ugly indeed, as the entire group accuses Koffi of witchcraft onto the baby and Alice is threatened with weapons to stop her interfering in the violent purification ritual to which Koffi submits. In the aftermath Tshala appears, explains to Lucie the source of the tensions with the family, and offers Koffi her shoulder to cry on. It’s something at least, though Tshala doesn’t plan to stay in Kinshasa long herself. When Lucie asks if she would come to Europe, she laughs and says no, that since the crash in 2008 it’s been a dead continent. She’s heading towards Durban, to join her South African boyfriend, until it becomes apparent things are not entirely smooth sailing there, either.

All that description makes the movie seem a bit dry, whereas the screen simply pops with vivid imagery and gorgeous color. Cinematographer Joachim Philippe manages to find a balance between the ordinary everyday, such as Lucie cutting Koffi’s hair, or the magic, such as the recurring images of a field of scarecrows on fire. The editing by Bertrand Conard and Bruno Tracq keep the complicated plot elements clear; and the melange of the European and African elements feels organic, and not necessarily aimed at Western audiences. The sequences with the street kids are also necessary, because they show a form of rejection and violence at home that Koffi, who was exiled, may well have experienced instead. The comforts of Europe are one thing, but there Koffi will never truly be at home. It’s a difficult thing to be split between two places. Mr. Zinga does solid work in showing how Koffi does his best to stay true to both parts of himself, and Ms. Debay takes the supportive girlfriend role beyond cliché to embody how she is willing to endure any outsider status her boyfriend’s family can dish out if it makes things easier for him. It’s nice when love, even love as complicated as this, is so straightforward.


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