‘Omen’ Director Baloji Says ‘Hating’ His Name Led Him to Making His First Film

TheWrap magazine: Baloji means “sorcerer” in Swahili, and the artist-director says “all my work is based on my name”

Baloji (Wrong Men)

Born in Congo and raised in Belgium, Baloji was known as a rapper, musician, fashion designer and poet before he made his feature film debut with “Omen.” The film begins as a man from Congo who was shunned as a sorcerer returns to his home village from Europe with his pregnant girlfriend. But it shifts perspective among four different characters accused of sorcery.

When you were working as a musician, a fashion designer and a poet, did you want to get into film?
I’ve been interested in films forever. I’m an autodidact, self-taught. I was living above a video club for eight years, and they taught me cinema by giving me films to watch. The first movie they gave me was Gerry by Gus Van Sant. And then I saw everything. A lot of Milos Forman, a lot of Italian movies—a lot of Pasolini, a lot of Fellini, Antonioni. And that resonates with my work today.

What inspired this film?
There were a lot of layers, but if I’m being honest, it was the passing of my dad. I remember there were some cryers [professional mourners] in the living room where everybody was mourning. I saw a scene in my head where they cry so much that it becomes a fountain around them. And then I was like, wow, why are you seeing a movie scene instead of being in the moment with everybody? And then I went home and I decided to give a tribute to my dad. And I spent eight weeks writing the script based on that scene.

But also, I will say that all my work is based on my name. Because its meaning is sorcerer. It’s like being in the U.S.A. and your name is Devil or Demon. I grew up hating my name. Even as a performing artist on the radio, they didn’t want to say my name out loud. But I chose to use my name as an artist because I knew I had to accept it. Because the first meaning of Baloji was “man of science.” And when Christianity arrived in Congo, it became the good religion and Baloji meant bad religion, black magic.

“Omen” (Wrong Men)

I understand you had trouble securing funding because it’s an adventurous film with shifting perspectives.
Yeah. The script was difficult for people. And also, people were reluctant to believe in somebody like me, because I work in music, I work in fashion, I work in commercials, which is seen as the worst art form ever. [Laughs] I got rejected 21 times, and two times they said yes. Belgium and Netherlands said yes.

But you only needed two, right?
I needed a little bit more, because it’s a $1.2 million film. Trust me, it’s a very, very small budget. It helped me that I learned how to be structured doing commercials and short films. We storyboard everything, we know what we are going to do and where we are going to shoot. Everything is prepared, otherwise it’s not possible. But it was super difficult.

In addition to writing, directing, doing the costume and production design, you also wrote the music for the film — and before the shoot, didn’t you write four entire albums, one for each of the main characters?  
That’s where I’m crazy. That’s why you have in front of you the most stupid guy ever. I wrote the script and it was like a year between the writing and the shooting. So I decided to make music for the point of view of each character. I was thinking to do two to four songs per album, and I ended up doing 20 songs per character. [Laughs] But when I made the movie, I was like, “Nah, it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t match.” And my producer was like, “This guy is crazy.” But I gave the music to the actors, and it did give them some insight, some backstory, some emotion of the characters. The music gave us a rhythm and helped us create a language for the filming.

A version of this story first appeared in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Juliette Binoche (Jeff Vespa)


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