Cannes 2023 review: Omen (Baloji)

Omen is one of the most engaging films of the year in terms of both narrative prowess and sheer creativity.”

One of the most exciting recent trends in contemporary African cinema is the rise of exploring contemporary perceptions of traditional mythologies. In his feature directorial debut, the mononymous Baloji (already carving out a niche for himself as an accomplished young artist across different media) sets out to explore these themes. The result is Omen (Augure), a picaresque, multicultural odyssey through Sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on a man returning home for a family celebration, only to discover the darker side of the culture after he is accused of witchcraft. Woven into his narrative are the interconnected stories of a few other characters, including his sister and their mother, with the general implication being that there is something sinister lurking over their family. A mysterious and deeply captivating story of culture as seen through the perspective of a director who is rapidly becoming one of the most intriguing young voices in contemporary African cinema, the film weaves together a fascinating narrative that ventures off in several different directions, but ultimately finds its way back to the centre, which is where some of the most compelling commentary resides. Concise and unsettling, and deeply enthralling in a way that is sometimes impossible to categorize, Omen reveals itself to be a film constructed from some fascinating ideas, many of which are extremely abstract, as we voyage through the strange and captivating world that Baloji establishes for us throughout this film.

As is usually the case with films that set out to provide a glimpse into contemporary African culture and social conventions, Omen centres around the concept of tradition and modernity, and the tension that exists between those who adhere to one side or the other. This is a burgeoning continent, and with the wealth of cultures that exist across the many nations, it is undeniable that this rapid growth, coupled with the growing diaspora, creates an instability in how certain customs are perceived and practised. The theme of homecoming is established quite early in Omen, the return of Koffi to his hometown shown with the excitement and joy of a prodigal son returning from the wilderness. This contrasts sharply with a series of unfortunate events that preclude him from being viewed as a celebrated hero, but instead a pariah who exists on the outskirts of decency and decorum, not only an outsider to their culture, but a deviant who should pay the consequences. This becomes an even larger subject of conversation as we see that this is not an isolated incident, and that other members of the community with whom Koffi is inextricably tied through familial bonds, also seem to possess whatever quality it is that causes them to challenge the status quo. The eternal tug-of-war between traditional beliefs and modern perspective is constantly called into question throughout this film, which looks at both with equal amounts of empathy and disdain, being able to simultaneously critique and celebrate the continent’s traditions and the people who keep them alive.

Baloji makes it clear from the start that he is going in search of something much deeper than just what we see on the surface, and that his investigation of the modern mythology that governs the African continent and its people, both those that have left and those who remain, will be anything but conventional. He doesn’t view African culture as one homogenous entity, but rather as a series of interrelated groups that share many qualities – whether it is as simple as a language or something more complex, these cultures are woven together, the film very carefully piecing together fragments of each in this vibrant and quite unsettling cultural tapestry. In terms of both conceptual intention and stylistic composition, the film achieves a distinct atmosphere – there is a sense of tension that starts from the first moments, and it only tends to grow and become more potent as we immerse ourselves deeper into this world. The film also blurs the boundaries between genres, with elements of supernatural horror and psychological thriller at its foundation, accompanied by bursts of satirical dark comedy that seemingly exist to alleviate the tension, when in reality they only intensify it. There are several surreal interludes that intend to give us insights into this culture, as seen by someone balanced between being an insider and an outsider to the social conventions shown on screen. All of which works to create a striking and compelling tapestry of the divide between the past and present, a constant point of intense conversation in the debate around tradition and modernity, to which the film frequently returns.

Baloji reflects on his own African heritage, as well as his position as a part of the wider diaspora, to weave a modern folktale that functions as a broad history of African cultural traditions, seeking to show that they are not outdated remnants of the past, but vitally important tenets in the lives of everyday people. To be able to create something so extraordinarily striking while never resorting to excess (every moment of this film comes across as entirely authentic and often quite bleak in terms of both the narrative and its execution) is quite a talent, especially when the final product is so hypnotic in its beauty. The director had several intentions when he set out to make Omen, and it would take several viewings and an abundance of research to understand every reference, whether artistic or cultural (this is mirrored in what seems to be a brief homage to the seminal African classic Touki Bouki, subtly referenced early on, in what I hope was an intentional choice). This only adds further nuance to an already strange and mystifying film, albeit one that never feels as if it is crushed by the weight of its own ambition, which is a regular occurrence for these massively audacious works. Baloji crafts a film that seeks to find beauty in the peculiarities of culture, never being derisive or disrespectful, but still provoking the boundaries of belief, and how these ancient traditions are still upheld as part of the social contract. Well-crafted and deeply unsettling, but also gorgeous in how it captures this continent and its interwoven traditions, Omen is one of the most engaging films of the year in terms of both narrative prowess and sheer creativity, and a firm reminder of how African cinema is slowly becoming a dominant force in the contemporary artistic landscape, and a major voice in the future of the medium.