Category: Belgian Cinema

Waiting For August (Belgium 2014)

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

Georgiana with her birthday cake and one of her younger brothers.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680Although this is a film produced in Flanders, all the action is actually set in Romania – and although the film presents itself like a documentary, it is actually a carefully-scripted observational study of a real family (the 2.35:1 ‘Scope presentation also suggests a fiction film). Writer-director Teodora Ana Mihai is herself a Romanian migrant who left the country as a child, growing up in Belgium and then California before film school in New York and a return to Belgium to work in the film industry. This surprising film is her second production and has already won four international prizes, including best documentary feature at Karlovy Vary and the Toronto Hot Docs festival. New prizes are being picked up all the time.

Georgiana is a teenager as Christmas approaches in the Romanian city where she lives with her six siblings in an overcrowded flat. Although she has an older brother who is 18, it appears that Georgiana is the de facto head of household as her single parent mother is in Italy earning the money the family needs as a cook for an elderly Italian family. Georgiana is expected to look after everybody, organising shopping, cooking and cleaning – and trying to achieve the more usual teenage goals of academic success, having fun and possibly finding a boyfriend. Soon it is her fifteenth birthday and the film’s title begins to make sense when we realise that it will have been eight months of struggle when mother finally returns at the height of summer.

Teodora Ana Mihai, <>

Director Teodora Ana Mihai

If this brief outline of the film’s plot suggests that this is going to be some form of ‘grim’ social realism, the reality is quite different. Somehow, Mihai manages to avoid jazzing up her story with dramatic incidents but still to make the everyday lives of the family members interesting. I confess that after the first twenty minutes or so – and feeling very tired – I thought that I might close my eyes and just let the film drift by. But that didn’t happen. Instead I gradually became more engaged with the characters and their daily struggles and minor triumphs. There are some moments of difficulty, e.g. when somebody tells Georgiana that the children should be in an orphanage, but these are faced and talked through with Mum on the phone or through a shaky video link on the computer. As the sun comes out in the spring, the children get to spend more time outside and Georgiana has more opportunity to talk to her schoolfriends about exams – and to catch the eyes of boys at the swimming pool.

The great strength of the film is seemingly down to three factors. The director clearly has a great rapport with these wonderful kids, the camerawork by Joachim Philippe is unobtrusive (and the sound is effective) and the seamless editing never draws attention to itself. This is the opposite of ciné vérité in which filmmakers provoke their subjects. Instead the camera seemingly just records the events as they unfold. The children are remarkably ‘ordinary’ – they don’t seem to play to the camera, but they do play and grouch like most children. This is a real family as explained in the director’s statement on the film’s excellent website:

. . . after many months of searching and numerous interviews, I finally met the Halmacs. Their story particularly touched me; fortunately, they agreed to share their everyday life with me and with the broader public. The Halmac kids literally claimed my empathy. Every single one of them is a real ‘character’, with a fascinating and well-defined personality that I just wanted to get to know better.

Having said that, I was of course also confronted with a crucial question: who was the main character in this story? Who was holding this family together in the mother´s absence? The answer came quite naturally: Georgiana, who was about to turn 15 when we started filming, had obviously taken over the parental responsibilities. She was the new point of reference for the rest of the siblings, despite her age.

As I started following Georgiana, I discovered an extremely strong, uninhibited teenager who accepted her new ‘head-of-the-family’ role with humility, without considering herself a victim. But she did possess the realisation that she — like the rest of her siblings — should have the right to a normal, more protected childhood.

I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives to tell their story of courage and resilience. After spending so much time together we all became like family, which gave this film its intimacy and, I believe, also its strength. Getting to know the Halmacs truly enriched my life.

At the end of the film when mother emerged from the airport to meet her children I had a tear in my eye. Waiting for August is already on screens in LA, San Francisco and New York and it is due to open in Belgium. I hope a UK distributor picks it up. At 88 minutes it’s a gem. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it.

Trailer:

Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy 2014)

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral questions. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.

A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:

2Days1Night

My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production anddirection) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.

The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or the ‘night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.

If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.

I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.

Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.

BIFF 2014 #8: The Joycean Society (Belgium 2013)

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

A Joycean palimpsest – a text with textual amendments, notes, embellishments, a text upon a text.

Portrait Without BleedI haven’t laughed so much in a cinema for a long time. This ‘mid-length’ documentary (52 mins) is extremely simple. It comprises a single camera roaming, mainly in close-up and shallow focus, around a room in Zurich in which the James Joyce Foundation offers the chance to discuss Finnegan’s Wake on a regular basis. The informative website gives all the background. The participants in the discussion in the film are mainly older people with just a couple younger, and presumably academics. We learn that for some of them this is their third time reading the book a few lines at a time and attempting to find all the possible meanings in this, Joyce’s richest book in terms of allusions.

The group comprises Europeans and at least one North American. The whole conversation is conducted in English and my only gripe about the film is that on the print we saw everything is also subtitled in English. It is certainly helpful to see Joyce’s words in print since so many of them are recondite and spelt in interesting ways. However, to have all the dialogue subtitled is unnecessary and a distraction. Everyone speaks English well enough and the subs aren’t needed. It’s revealing how easily the eye is drawn to read when there is no need. Having said that, Dora Garcia’s film isn’t particularly interested in the image as such, although the cinematographer tries to ring the changes. There are a couple of scenes outside the room in which one of the participants expands on the background to the group. Speakers are often framed in profile or are only seen partially, often out of focus. The words are the important elements.

I think that I laughed most at the naiveté and sensitivity of the participants concerning sex, death etc. – topics Joyce was gleeful about exploring. Mostly it’s like watching University Challenge and enjoying getting question right before the team. But I shouldn’t underestimate these guys and they do know a lot. It’s a pleasure to see people working together without being competitive.

I understand that the work is actually part of a larger project. That makes sense. As it stands I don’t think it fits into the European features competition. I tend to go by the French definition that requires a feature to be 65 mins or more. But if you do get the chance to see it, do take it.