A Lesson in the Value of Perspective from Belgian-Congolese Artist and Director Baloji
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The musician / filmmaker and Academy Films head of music Maurizio Von Trapp explain to LBB’s Alex Reeves why the world needs to be depicted through more eyes like Baloji’s
Baloji doesn’t have the kind of perspective on the world that UK-based production companies like Academy Films are used to representing. Which is exactly why they’ve signed him.
Born in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo and based in Belgium, he’s a polymath musician and filmmaker who combines the culture he’s had access to to create films that invigorate. In Swahili, Baloji originally means man of science but during the colonial era this transformed into man of occult sciences and into sorcerer today. That etymological journey tells a story of Blackness and colonialism that flows through much of Baloji’s work.
In 2008, he released ‘Hotel Impala’ an album conceived as a reply to a letter he received from his mother after a 25-year absence. He’s since put out two albums and is grateful to have had the space to progress: “I’m a lucky person to be more relevant than I was 10 years ago. The industry is designed so that you don’t have that chance to last long. I had the chance to grow as a musician, going from straight hip hop to something more musical, more African.”
Baloji never planned to become a filmmaker, but began out of necessity. “Nobody really wanted to shoot my films,” he says. So he started his directorial career by making videos set to his own music, and has made several short films for which he creates the visuals, costumes and set design since. With his first short fiction film, ‘Kaniama Show’, he made a satire on African propaganda TV shows. ‘Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit’ is a musical trip that looks into Congolese pygmy wedding traditions. He opened up the skin bleaching debate with ‘Never Look At the Sun’, his visual ode to Black beauty, a film he made for Nowness. In his last short film, ‘Zombies’, he brings together tribal motifs and digital culture to explore the stupefying effects of mobile technology. He’s currently developing his first feature film, a hybrid VR experience and another short film.
For many years Baloji was his own producer, his own first AD, he did his own styling. Working as a Renaissance man for years has helped him build a powerful body of work but he’s more than happy to be backed up by a company like Academy now and able to work with a team of specialists. “It makes a difference when you have somebody challenging you, asking you questions, showing you how to present your projects and navigate this industry,” he says.
He’s insatiably curious, interested in working for other artists and interesting brands. Ultimately, he enjoys it. “I like to be on set,” he says. Soon he’ll be on the set for a friend’s feature film for 10 days, as a spectator and student. “Just to understand the dynamics of how to articulate a movie.” Baloji knows that he needs to gain experience with a team of experts but that ultimately, “the director has to be the captain.”
In fact, he learned this lesson several years ago when he was shooting one of his music videos in the DRC capital of Kinshasa. Baloji was working with a DOP who was used to working on expensive commercials, he notes. They’d agreed that most of the video would be sequences of a dancer and that some of it would be shot in slow motion. Without asking Baloji, the DOP shot all the dance sequences in slo-mo, without checking. “He saw me as a musician who has no clue. ‘He’s just a rapper.’ That’s even more insulting than ‘just a musician’,” says the director. He discovered this catastrophe for his vision in the editing suite and called the DOP instantly. “I was so pissed,” he says.
“That day I understood. I decided that if I’m on set, I know everything. Because the one single thing that you don’t focus on is the one that will boomerang back to you as an issue. Not to be a control freak. It’s just to understand what is happening.”
He eventually had to re-shoot all the dance sequences for that project in Belgium, trying to mock up DRC, and has changed since then. By the time Baloji gets to the edit, he needs to know that he has what he needs to work with. “That’s the moment of truth to see if your idea is well structured, or if not how to create something new based on the images you have,” he says.
Baloji won’t play down how crucial the cutting room is to him. The editors he chooses are vital partners. “I’m working with one that I really like because he doesn’t want new friends. He’s not there to please anybody. If you think your idea is the best and he thinks it’s shit, he will tell you. He helped me to accept that sometimes your favourite scene doesn’t make the cut. Everybody can get complacent. It’s difficult to take a bit of distance and realise when something doesn’t work.”
Partnerships are a key part of Baloji’s current enthusiasm. He’s excited to be working with Academy’s head of music Maurizio Von Trapp (“I just love his energy”), who he insists is more passionate about filmmaking than most producers.
Maurizio is equally smitten with the latest addition to the Academy roster. “He’s got such a unique point of view,” he says. “All of the videos you see from him look like such an adventure. They’re not films that you could budget easily and make in a straightforward way. I want to make work like this. There’s a magic in it that comes from serendipity, from throwing yourself at something with heart and without the rigidity of knowing all the ins and outs. There’s something refreshing in his work that I want to be a part of.”
Filmmaking hasn’t ever been a job for Baloji. “We do this for fun,” he reminds us. “The creative process has to be fun. Even if it’s a lot of work it has to be a playground. I think we have to cherish that aspect of our work. It has to stay playful.”
Of course, Baloji and his new favourite producer might be having a good time collaborating on new work together, but that doesn’t affect the horror of the 2020 context we all find ourselves in.
“If you’re creative and 2020 doesn’t have an impact on you, you should change career,” says Baloji. “So many things happened and I can’t point out one moment, but it’s an exceptional year. It’s extremely challenging but really inspiring. We can use so many details. We went to the core of the human condition and it was quite interesting.
“There are a lot of extremely inspiring things happening right now. But also it’s normal that certain people are not feeling inspired by the situation right now. You don’t have to feel obliged to be creative. It’s not bad just to digest what’s going on.”
Maurizio reflects that the horrors of the year have precipitated change in some good ways, particularly the killing of George Floyd and others at the hands of police, triggering a new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. “There’s space for subjects and themes that would have been unthinkable six months ago. These conversations about colonialism and history are things that Baloji talks a lot about. And that’s a big focus for the stuff we’re working on for the future. A year ago, if I’d gone to people with those storylines they would have shied away from it. It’s still something that Europe can’t handle.”
Now the people with the power and platform to support filmmaking will at least listen to stories about statues glorifying the terrors of colonialism and racist history. They might have just woken up to those stories, but Baloji’s had them within him for a long time.
In fact, one of the first films he ever made explored themes of colonialism and the past’s importance to understanding the present. It was called ‘Finding Stanley’, after Henry Morton Stanley, the man who originally claimed the Congo for the Belgian king. Baloji had been observing as the Congolese tore down statues of him and other European colonialists years ago.”But they [the DRC] tried to make peace with Belgium so they tried to reinstall those statues,” he says. “So I made a film about people trying to find those statues and stop them from reinstalling them. That was five years ago and it’s so relevant now.”
These themes permeate the majority of his work since. But Baloji doesn’t want to impose readings of his films. “We enter a song for the music and we stay for the lyrics. In cinema you can have symbolism, different levels of reading. I like that some people can stick with the first meaning, some people can go a little bit deeper, but I don’t want to put pressure on the viewer to understand the message.”
He compares it to his own creative development: “When I was at school they took me to a museum to see Picasso. I thought it was boring. I didn’t understand. But now I understand. So I have to accept that we are all the same. We just grow.”
He might not want to polemicise about why his work is important, but Maurizio is adamant that voices like Baloji’s, as a Black man, need amplifying. One example of this at work is how he was invited to curate a collection of short films by African directors at the London Short Film Festival at the start of 2020. “Baloji knows it,” says Maurizio. “It’s his culture, his context, he’s in touch with it. If there’s no curator who is that involved, we’re all going to keep on being ignorant. It’s important that everybody has a look at themselves and asks if we’re representing everything here.”
The director himself thinks a key role filmmaking can play in fighting racism is in casting - giving non-white people roles that are normally not assigned to non-white people would be a start. “In Belgium and France, if the character is not specifically Black in the script, the role is not for a Black character. The perception you have of yourself is conditioned by the way you can project yourself.
“It’s very important that you see Black people playing characters that are not there on the condition that they are Black. They are just having a love affair, having a history, being part of a discussion, being a CEO.”
Maurizio’s experience is different, but he can relate in some respects. It’s vital to make people feel like their story is worth telling, he stresses. “Growing up as a gay boy in Brazil, thinking about the storylines being told, I always thought I’d have to create those straight couple characters to carry a story because whatever comes from me is just not good enough for the world. That stays with people. You carry it with you every day of your life.”
Baloji notes that, of course, he doesn’t want to be given a job on the basis of his race. And Maurizio agrees: “I’m taking in Beloji on because he’s Black. I want to work with Baloji because he has a different point of view. And that point of view is very much informed by his Blackness. I got to a point where I am so tired of seeing straight white men’s point of view. I grew up with it. Everywhere you look it’s straight white men telling you what to think. I want to know what the rest of the world thinks. And it’s important to use the platform we give to him to make sure that point of view comes across.”
So what sort of stories does Baloji want to tell from this perspective? He laughs at how trivial he knows this might sound initially, but ventures, “I would like to film a love scene… I’m not working on a porn film! But it’s something that I question very often. Maybe I could do better.”
Maurizio chimes in, joking: “Watch out for Academy’s new porn department in 2020!”
Baloji is serious though. “When you see the traffic, people watch more porn than Netflix. It’s something that matters.
“I’m very interested in the way films have sex scenes, the way it’s built up.” He talks about a Gaspar Noé sex scene between a man and a woman that he saw recently that he felt managed not to sexualise the woman. “Most of the time when you see a love scene you see the woman’s breasts and you never see much of the man. It’s a common rule. So I started questioning this.”
Baloji has an 11-year-old daughter. They often watch Casa de Papel [Money Heist] together. “We have a game where we say ‘male gaze’ whenever we see it. All these little details that are made to be seen by young men, assuming they’re going to love these scenes and enjoy it. I think it’s something interesting to change. It’s great when we have these experiences because it’s challenging for me as well and she understands that.”
Baloji’s daughter has access to a lens which he can’t see through. And there’s the power of different perspectives in the face of a world of inequity demonstrated. “That’s a point-of-view thing too. It’s literally the male gaze,” says Maurizio. “A male director with a male DOP with a male producer and usually they’re all white. There’s no questioning of the world as they see it. They just assume that the world feels like this to everyone.” It’s directors like Baloji that help us realise that it doesn’t.