Remember when kids wanted to be vets or police officers or garbage collectors when they grew up? They might still do today, but there is another more interesting ambition for this generation: social media personality.
This is definitely true for Binti (Bebel Tshiani Baloji), the main character in the Belgian movie that bears her name. Binti is a 10-year-old Belgian–Congolese girl who dreams about being a social media star. She certainly has the personality, imagination and videography skills for it. When we first meet her, she is ecstatic about getting 1000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. But as illegal immigrants in Belgium, she and her father Jovial (Baloji) also have other things to consider, like finding shelter when their place is raided by immigration officers.
During their escape they meet Elias (Mo Bakker), an intense child who spends a lot of time in his treehouse, trying to ignore how his parents have separated and his mum Christine (Joke Devynck) has a new beau. Elias is also very passionate about saving the okapi, an animal that is native to Congo, which endears him to both Binti and Jovial. He has been trying to gain mass appeal for okapis, but mass communication in a hyper-digital world is not his forte.
Despite their different circumstances and backgrounds, Binti and Elias develop a mutually beneficial alliance and draw their parents into their universe. Together, they make a strange but comforting foursome as they hunker down together in Christine’s house and sidestep impending problems. Binti uses her media skills to progress Elias’ campaign to save the okapis, which leads to a delightful montage of the kids organising a block party, designing outfits and rehearsing a dance. They enjoy each other’s company so much that they also try to Parent Trap their parents, by setting up romantic dinners and alone time for them.
But when Elias realises that Binti’s real reason to set their parents up is to gain residency in Belgium, he feels betrayed and things go awry for everyone.
Binti might be a movie about kids but it is hardly a kids’ movie, given its focus on heavy topics like immigration, classism and racism. This is not uncommon as many movies also tackle societal issues and problems from a kid’s point of view. There is indeed something engrossing about watching kids battle ‘the system’ or old-fashioned villains without knowing how the odds are stacked against them. Sometimes the main character is plucky and adorable like orphan Annie in the musical Annie, sometimes they are kind and honest like Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In many of these movies, the kid’s defining characteristics are their innocence and can-do attitude. Binti is slightly different. Director Frederike Migom shows her as a someone who is hyperaware of the limitations the world has placed on her, rather than someone with unbridled optimism. Surveillance and survival are part of her DNA, so when she sees an opportunity, she goes for it first and apologises later.
She’s also funny, charming and lights up a room. Sometimes this veneer cracks, like when she finds out that she might be deported to Congo, a country she has never lived in.
“Why do I have to leave?” she yells. “I was born here!”
This is perhaps the core of the movie, and the lightbulb moment for everyone. In the first half of the movie, we were lulled into thinking it’s a feel-good or heart-warming movie. Maybe even a rom-com with star-crossed lovers. But for Binti and Jovial, this is actually a crime drama, or even a horror movie. Jovial visibly tenses up in the presence of any uniformed officers; he does not have the luxury to relax or feel good. He and Binti are constantly judged and treated differently. Nobody cares that Jovial is a poet and writer. Nobody cares that Binti has stage presence. You’re nobody unless you’re a legal citizen and Binti knew that from the start of the movie.
Bebel Tshiani Baloji is the real star; she outshines everyone. If Binti's relationship with Jovial seems realistic, that is because the pair are father and daughter in real life. With this knowledge, some scenes take on a new meaning, especially the ones where Jovial rolls his eyes in mock amusement and resignation at Binti’s theatrics. One can only assume that it is a fair representation of some of their life together. And luckily for us, they’ve immortalised a part of that on the big screen.
Binti is now streaming at SBS On Demand.