Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The powerful forces of family and fable, old and new, intertwine and vie for supremacy in Belgian-Congolese director Baloji’s visually striking debut."

The powerful forces of family and fable, old and new, intertwine and vie for supremacy in Belgian-Congolese director Baloji’s visually striking debut. A film that is all about showing us how slippery perspectives can be and which has no problem in blending the real and surreal with energetic verve, it unfolds in four interconnected parts, each from a specific character’s viewpoint.

Chief among them is Koffi (Mark Zinga), who is about to become a dad with his white Belgian fiancee Alice (Lucie Debay). The pair of them are planning a trip back to his Democratic Republic of Congo homeland in order to make peace with his family, who have previously labelled him “a sorcerer” due to a facial birthmark. Baloji captures the liminal situation many who have lived away from home for a long time will relate to. The sense of not fitting in either in the new place or the old, from the way your hair is done and how you dress to the way you speak.

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A reunion with Koffi’s mother Mujila (a ferociously intense Yves-Marina Gnahoua) and extended family does not go as planned after a nosebleed reignites fears and leads to Koffi agreeing to see a local faith healer for a cleansing ritual. Although it’s clear Koffi doesn’t personally hold with portents and curses, there’s a complexity involved that goes beyond what he believes to take into consideration the cultural wishes of his family. Baloji isn’t playing this incident for satire as, for example, similar superstitions are treated in the likes of I Am Not A Witch, instead he gives them a melancholic cast as there’s a sense of everyone involved being trapped somehow in the ritual.

It’s an idea that will be later repeated in a segment dedicated to Koffi’s sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire) - also considered a black sheep of the family and whose relationship with Ezra (Bongewize Mabandla) is also frowned upon by her mother. She too will find herself on the receiving end of traditional treatment not because she believes in its healing powers but out of a sense of duty to that tradition and the familial connection it has for her.

Completing the central triptych will be a final section dedicated to Mujila herself that not only lends previous events a fresh cast but also shows how much she is aware of the overtly ‘performative’ nature of some of these traditions. Like the Baba Yaga-style character glimpsed in one of the film’s more flamboyant segments, her attitude and motivations are more ambiguous than might first have appeared.

Winding through these stories is the fourth viewpoint, concerning youngster Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya) who has fully embraced the outsider status that comes with being branded “a sorcerer”, performing magic with this rag-tag gang, known as The Goonz. For all his embrace of the mystical, however, it is the hard realities of a real world turf war that threaten him and his friends. Paco’s story dances at the edge of the family tale, goosing the other segments with a shot of surreality as Baloji and his cinematographer Joachim Philippe infuse the everyday with flourishes of magical realism. The looseness with which Baloji approaches his themes calls for viewers to be similarly nimble and ready to make their own leaps of faith.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2024
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When a man who was cast out as a child after being considered a sorceror returns home, he faces prejudice.

Director: Baloji

Writer: Baloji, Thomas van Zuylen

Starring: Marc Zinga, Lucie Debay, Eliane Umuhire, Yves-Marina Gnahoua, Marcel Otete Kabeya

Year: 2023

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: DRC

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