The Dardenne Brothers are among the most reliable and consistent filmmakers working today. It was something of a surprise that their appearance at Cannes this year was not met with universal acclaim. Indeed they decided that they needed to recut The Unknown Girl before its international release and seven minutes were excised to leave a 106 minute feature. With this in mind and fearing, if not the worst, then the possibility of disappointment, I was relieved to find that it was business as usual.
The narrative premise is simple. A young and highly-regarded doctor fails to answer the surgery door long after normal working hours. She reasons that if it is really urgent the caller will press the bell again. But nothing happens until later when the police inform the doctor that CCTV footage shows a young woman at the surgery door and that it is the same young woman who has been found dead on the bank of the River Meuse a short distance away. The doctor is shaken and struck by a profound sense of guilt as well as compassion for an unnamed woman whose identity is a mystery. Doctor Jenny Gavin, played by rising French star Adèle Haenel, becomes the first Dardenne brothers’ protagonist to be drawn from the professional classes. She’s also the third mainstream French actress in a row to feature in the Dardennes’ social realist films. As usual, the Dardennes had been mulling over the central idea for the story for a few years before they decided to make it after meeting Adèle Haenel. The circumstances of the story are also quite familiar. It could almost be a spin-off from the opening scenes of The Kid With a Bike when the boy in question runs into a doctor’s surgery. The ‘kid’ (Thomas Doret) turns up again in the new film, five years on in a small role and there are plenty of other familiar faces from the Dardennes’ films including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Christelle Cornil and Fabrizio Rongione. But the differences are noticeable.
The social class difference is important. In the other films, the protagonist is either a young person struggling with a social/personal problem or an older woman subject to some form of control. Here, Jenny is a successful doctor, able to make her own decisions and to access the money she needs to fund her ‘investigation’ – since that is what she undertakes, a mission to find out who the dead girl was and even to pay for a decent burial (while hoping that the deceased’s family will eventually appear to claim her). I realised later that the narrative has some similarities with the recent ‘Hollywoodised’ versions of popular novels like The Girl on the Train – in which a middle-class woman tries to find out what happened when she appears to be involved in a murder. I won’t spoil what happens to Jenny but she starts her investigation with no accusations against her – the police accept that not answering the door after closing time at the surgery is not a crime. She is therefore motivated by her own sense of responsibility and morality. Jenny’s behaviour is also linked to another ‘failing’ in that she refused to answer the door as part of an attempt to exert her authority over an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). She was trying to teach him that doctors need to be alert and that he must avoid ‘overworking’ so his head remains clear to deal with patients in surgery time. But perhaps she gets this wrong too?
Dr Jenny is also to some extent an ‘unknown girl/woman’. We know nothing about her background. She appears to be single and without any form of ‘outside’ commitments. (It’s still unusual to have a female protagonist who isn’t either involved with a man or constrained by family responsibilities.) She takes her work seriously and the death of the woman seems to galvanise her into making a decision to work alone as a GP in a working-class practice. She works long hours and spends the rest of her time on the investigation – which will involve people from the neighbourhood. This all makes her sound rather dull and indeed some reviewers have criticised the film because they think that she is a dull and humourless figure and that the story is not ‘exciting’ enough. I don’t really agree with this. She isn’t humourless and she has a good relationship with her patients. It’s true that at first there aren’t the entertaining sequences – confrontations between characters – that we find in earlier Dardennes films. But she finds things out and the confrontations come eventually. Some reviewers have seen the development of a film noir narrative in the second half. Other reviews suggest that she is a ‘do-gooder’ and somehow morally ‘superior’ – which are not attractive features. I think her moral dilemmas are ‘real’ and that the reactions she evokes are understandable and have to be handled. The social issues are still there – migrant workers, male attitudes to prostitution and working-class confrontations with a young female medical practitioner. I also found it interesting to see something about social medicine in Belgium, which has a different system to the UK. Home visits are rare in the UK now but thankfully nobody has to pay for treatment. I’ve seen criticism that the narrative becomes contrived, but this can also be seen (as in other Dardennes films) as portraying the inter-connectedness of communities and the film manages to embed the central story in a recognisable world.
Not a crowd-pleaser film perhaps, but a great central performance offering plenty to think about.
Black is a difficult film to discuss because there are several contradictions in what it presents. On the plus side this is the first film I’ve seen which presents second generation immigrant communities in Belgium – and in particular Maghrebi and West/Central African teenagers. Also a plus, the film is lively with good technical credits and strong performances mainly from non-professionals. But on the down side the film has at least one scene of sexual violence which seemed to me to be exploitative and degrading – and not necessary to show in this way. As a consequence, the film received a ’16’ certificate in Belgium and an ’18’ in the UK (though it may be that the language – in translation – was enough to make it an 18 for BBFC). This effectively excludes much of the target audience. The film is based on two popular ‘young adult’ novels in Flemish (Black/Back by Dirk Bracke) and the official film website includes an Education Pack (in French and Flemish). I wouldn’t want to use the film with 17 year-old students because of the rape scene. My second major concern is that the two groups of young people in opposing street gangs are represented quite differently.
The ‘1080s’ (named for the postcode of Molenbeek, the Brussels district at the centre of recent fears about terrorism) are petty criminals, snatching bags from cars and pedestrians. They are mainly Moroccan youths. The ‘Black Bronx’ are heavily typed as drug dealers and misogynists with few redeeming features. They are mainly Congolese and are also involved in a turf war with another similar gang, The Black Panthers. It seems an odd approach for Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the two Maghrebi filmmakers, the only North Africans in their art school. They seem to be arguing that both gangs are ferocious in defence of their identity because there is no future for them in ‘white Belgium’, but they load the most negative traits onto the Congolese.
My frustration with the film’s UK release is that it was heavily promoted via a feature article in the Guardian as an update/commentary on the two French films La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014) and a full-page ad in the Guardian G2. But the film opened in only four arthouse cinemas alongside a VOD release. There seemed to be a confusion over what kind of film it might be. The filmmakers also quote other films as reference points including City of God (Brazil 2002) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) – and their admiration for Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. They make it clear that they are not interested in arthouse cinema and indeed they are now in Hollywood working on Beverly Hills Cop 4.
15 year-old Mavela is the new kid in ‘The Black Bronx’, arrested for the first time for shoplifting. In the police station she meets 16 year-old Marwan from the ‘1080s’. Despite warnings from other gang members the two meet up later and a relationship ensues. Mavela is gradually sucked into the worst extremes of her gang’s behaviour and it is clear that eventually the couple will be found out and that the two gangs will clash with Marwan and Mavela at the centre.
The bare outline above excludes various sub-plots to avoid too many spoilers. The main narrative is very familiar. It doesn’t have the subtlety of La haine nor the visual audacity and wit of Girlhood (although it has a strong music track and a camera style that shows off Brussels very well). I laughed out loud at one brief sequence of three young women dancing in the sunlight coming through the windows of a high-rise – a seeming ‘borrow’ from La haine without any narrative function. The only other La haine link I could see is Mina, the Maghrebi police officer who knows Marwan just as Samir knows the young men in La haine. Unlike the ’empowering’ young women of Girlhood, the young women in Black are treated (very badly) as sexual objects by the male gang members. (The young men in Girlhood are not angels but they are not as brutal as those depicted in Black.)
The script by the directors and by the more experienced Hans Herbots and Nele Meirhaeghe struggles to find motivations for the characters. This is particularly true of the scenes with Mavela’s mother. There is a complicated set of relationships involving mother and daughter and another gang member, Mavela’s cousin, which seems to be little more than a plot device, though there is also something about the sociology of the community in there as well. At one point we see ‘X’, the leader of the Black Bronx, watching a TV documentary seemingly about the civil wars in the Congo. Was he a child soldier in those wars? Does this explain his brutality?
The local issue that does appear – and which is articulated by the directors – is the sense of divided identities in Belgium. Since the decline of the industries of the Meuse valley in Francophone Wallonia, Flemish Belgium to the north has become the dominant and wealthier half of the country. Brussels is an island between the two language cultures. It is predominantly Francophone, yet located within the Flemish region. In the film, both Marwan and Mavela see Flemish as the ‘wrong’ language. They use it only to curse and the only Flemish-speaking characters are the white cops who the kids see as racist. What is surprising is that much of the funding comes from Flemish funds and the filmmaker’s mentors are also from the Flemish industry. Fallah himself comes from Antwerp and suggests that he experienced racism from as a teenager. Black‘s narrative generates its conflict by pushing at the conflict between the Moroccans and the Congolese – even though as the filmmakers suggest, such conflicts are relatively rare. It’s worth pointing out that in La haine, the three young men are together and opposed to the police and local Nazis. In Girlhood, the focus is entirely on African-Caribbean communities with no mention of Maghrebi youth. These two films are by white directors, wary perhaps of getting involved in inter-racial conflicts. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have more experience of the relationships between their young characters but I do wonder if they have thought through how the film will be read. They have skilfully worked the conventions of a genre movie as a calling card for Hollywood but that’s perhaps as far as it goes.
None of the films discussed here enter into a discourse about religion as such, nor links to ‘terrorism’ in the current context and that’s probably a good thing, especially in the case of Black. I’m glad I saw the film and I’m pleased that young Maghrebis in Belgium are able to make a genre film with high levels of skill and visual imagination (Black is actually their second film after the ‘thriller’ Image in 2014). Perhaps we’ll now see more – and more nuanced – films based in the Brussels? One aspect of Black that I would like to know more about is the locations. The Moroccan gang is in Molenbeek and this is characterised by familiar high rises. The Brussels district of Matonge is often quoted as the centre for Congolese Belgians but this is an ‘inner city area’ close to the city centre with relatively few Congolese residents. The Black Bronx are often seen arriving in the centre by train – as in La haine – implying their estate is farther out. The area in which Mavela lives has very distinct architecture which I haven’t been able to place. Anyone know where it is?
Here’s the official Black trailer (which seems very dark to me – it looked fine in the cinema). It’s available on VOD from iTunes, Virgin and Sky and in various (mostly London) cinemas over the next few weeks:
This is a blog written last year (for Women’s Film and Television History Network), on the first screening of Akerman’s last film and its accompanying exhibition. Although the exhibition has finished, I hope this captures an idea of these intense films as the moving and powerful No Home Movie is released in the U.K.
The two-year retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films, curated by Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts under the title A Nos Amours, had its last screening on Friday 30th October (2015) at the Regent Street Cinema, with her latest film No Home Movie (2015). Following Akerman’s recent tragic death, there was still a palpable sense of shock, and an appropriately emotional and dignified introduction was given by Akerman’s long-term collaborator and editor, Claire Atherton. She has been in London for the last fortnight helping to curate the NOW exhibition, the first complete showing of some of Akerman’s installation works, which is at Ambika P3, a gallery space at the University of Westminster (exhibited until 6th December 2015). Both the film and Akerman’s installation work are simultaneously revelatory and quintessentially Akerman and demand to be seen. Below, are some brief, first impressions.
The large, light space has been converted into something very subterranean and dark to suit the films’ projection and their emotion. In a mixture of single films, often with an audio commentary, and multi-screen installations, there is no single dimension, and the choices made in this report are idiosyncratic ones. In a piece entitled Maniac Summer (2009), a large-screen projects images including Akerman working in her flat, families playing outside in a park and a street scene. Along a perpendicular wall, the images appear to dissolve and deteriorate, turn to black and white, and, on the facing wall, coalesce into abstraction. Staying within that room over an extended period brings a shift in perception of time and space and a move beyond observing simple juxtapositions, and, in a very Akerman-like manner, the sheer intensity (if given time) breaks through to something much more experiential. The accompanying notes suggest this work fits with her commitment to exploring the legacy of the Holocaust: “looking for, and finding, traces, shadows, remnants” since, given the continent’s recent history: “what else should a European be sensible of?”. Her mother grew up in Poland and was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and in the work D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), a room is filled with rows of televisions, divided into groups of three, showing footage from Akerman’s journey across Eastern Europe. The filmmaker voices a poetic monologue in an accompanying video, about a journey through a history that no longer has a capital H.
The daughter’s relationship with the mother is everywhere in this exhibition as it is in No Home Movie (2015). During Maniac Shadows (2013), their outlines move across the beach – together and apart. Elsewhere, Akerman on screen, with the merest backlight highlighting her figure, reads from a memoir about her mother’s failing health. Her trademark warm, throaty, strongly-accented voice (pervading the whole exhibition) contributes to this piece’s emotion. And, as Akerman’s work has been concerned with many forms of grief, so this exhibition itself has become a site of loss, vividly representing her simultaneous presence and her absence.
Akerman’s mother passed away last year, and she is the central figure of No Home Movie, which also includes Akerman’s sister, Sylviane (who attended both the screening and the exhibition). Scenes capture aspects of family life with their ailing mother in her Belgian flat very realistically, with flashes of extremely relatable family tension between them. Abstract sequences from Akerman’s filmmaking travels punctuate the motionless camera witnessing daily rhythms inside the flat. Maman moves in and out of shot as does Akerman and also the home helpers; we watch the domestic routine – of course, this reminds us of Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) but there are also echoes, here, of the relationship of News from Home (1976-7). We hear her mother’s rhythmic throat noise, an effect of old age but musical, comforting and quickly familiar. Akerman commands a multiplicity of tones: abstract, intimate, contemplative and dryly humorous. As J Hoberman says in a quote at Ambika P3, “Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation”. I would like to finish with another stolen phrase from a young woman who sat next to me and cried many times during the film. She said it had shown her the dignity of being human. If only Akerman had been there, as planned, to hear the comments and sustained applause that greeted the final credits.
Although 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.
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.