Category: Belgian Cinema

Walter Presents: Code 37, Sex Crimes (Belgium 2009)

The vice squad team in Ghent: (from left) Kevin (Gilles De Schrijver), Charles (Marc Lauwrys), Hannah (Veerle Baetens) and Bob (Michael Pas)

‘Walter Presents’ is the ‘authored brand’ of foreign language TV dramas offered by UK broadcaster Channel 4 via selected slots on its secondary channel More4 and on SVOD via its All4 streaming service. ‘Walter’ is Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian TV producer who finds the programming for Channel 4. The SVOD service is free to access in the UK, though it requires registration. I’m accessing it via Apple TV. Code 37 (the original title) is unusual in being an archive series/serial which ran in Belgium for three seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – 39 episodes (of approx. 47 mins) in all. There was a standalone feature film in 2011, also titled Code 37. I’ve watched the first half of Season 1 and it’s been an interesting experience.

The narrative is set in the Flemish city region of Ghent (Gent) in East Flanders. The dialogue is mainly in Flemish with English subs and the occasional phrase in English. Episode 1 begins with the new boss of the city’s vice squad, Hannah Maes (Veerle Baetens) arriving on her first day at a murder scene in a hotel. She meets her new team and swiftly claims the case (of a guest murdered in her room) ahead of the homicide squad because, she argues, the woman in her 30s was clearly strangled during a ‘choke sex’ act. I’m not sure that the narrative establishes how this could be proven – i.e. whether this was a sex ‘game’ gone wrong or a deliberate act of murder. The episodes appear to be organised as one case per episode, so the team have barely 40 minutes to find the person responsible. In addition this first episode shows Hannah settling in to her new apartment after returning from working with American crime teams in Chicago. There is also a brief flashback to something that happened several years earlier in her parent’s home. This was clearly traumatic and marks Hannah as a young woman who is driven by her early experience of violent crime. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is a possible influence on the script and I note that Veerle Baetens once starred in a theatrical musical production of Salander’s ‘heroine’ model, ‘Pippa Longstocking’.

Code 37 is in many ways a conventional crime series. Hannah relaxes by playing vinyl records (her mother’s collection’) of classic Motown. One element that is different is Hannah’s ‘team’ which comprises three typical misfits. Charles is an asthmatic chain smoker close to retirement and Kevin is a young man with blonde curls which along with his wide grin make him appear like a naughty choirboy. He is the ‘computer wiz’. Finally there is Bob, the macho slob who cracks bad jokes and cranks out the sexist remarks about Hannah – out of her hearing.

This unlikely team is supposed to investigate ‘sex crimes’ and it does mean a slightly different approach to the standard police procedural. I imagine that a ‘vice squad’, like a ‘drugs squad’ will see a different balance in their work between the private and the personal. They will spend time in an alternative world which they need to understand. They may have to go undercover and they may have to make moral decisions about behaviour that they might not otherwise meet. The broadcaster may feel that with an SVOD offer it is possible to represent sexual acts more graphically than on terrestrial channels. This series has been sold to North American channels and I’ve seen one commentator suggesting that this European show might ramp up the sex but moderate the violence compared to US series. I’m not sure that is necessarily something I’ve noticed so far. The show comes complete with warnings about sex and violence but the registration process would be unlikely keep out the average savvy 11 year-old.

The weakness of the format is the short amount of time in which to set up a case for the team to investigate and apprehend the culprit(s) as well as exploring Hannah’s back story. But do the writers and director manage to get round the problem? I admit that after a couple of episodes I couldn’t really understand why the series seems to be so highly rated on IMDb. But there was something there that kept me watching (the box set binge attraction?). I’m glad I did because after eight episodes I’m enjoying the show a lot. The three team members who I thought were comic characters are being gradually fleshed out. Bob has got his comeuppance and Charles and Kevin prove to be competent and interesting characters with back stories that are slowly being revealed.

Veerle Baetens is the star attraction as Hannah and a strong addition to the growing group of female leads in TV crime fictions.

But the show stands or falls on Veerle Baeten’s Hannah and she is very good indeed. The character is similar in some ways to both Lisbeth Salander and Saga Noren but she isn’t as extreme as either of them. She has two other narratives to negotiate. The first is the trauma of a ‘home invasion’ at her parents’ house. Hannah is now trying to re-open the cold case and investigate it on her own. She is also trying to decide what to do about a possible relationship with her neighbour who lives on a barge behind her apartment. The cold case is introduced by the same flashback sequences each time Hannah visits her father. I do find this irritating but gradually more is being revealed so I’ll live with it. But the biggest surprise is the variety of cases the squad is required to investigate and the ways in which Hannah not only organises the work efficiently but also how she deals sympathetically and patiently with a wide range of victims and perpetrators. The code by which Hannah operates is spelled out in the first episode – if a sexual act between two people is consensual by both parties that’s OK. But if someone is forced it becomes a crime to be investigated. Presumably this will eventually be tested in an episode that involves BDSM? It is tested out in a different way in Episode 2 in which the team discover that a young woman is an exhibitionist who likes to strip and dance provocatively for a man in an apartment some distance from her high rise block. She sends him texts when she is about to start and he uses a telescope to watch her. This is clearly consensual but voyeuristic behaviour like this is, in general terms a crime, as Hannah reveals to the man whose wife and children are unaware of what he is doing. Because the young woman is involved in another incident which involves violence and is connected to her exhibitionism, the voyeur must be investigated. This risks his exposure and the possible break-up of his marriage and/or the loss of his job as a schoolteacher. This strikes me as an interesting moral dilemma for Hannah and her team – and one repeated in different ways throughout the series.

I’m assuming Belgian law is not dissimilar to that in France and other parts of Europe (i.e. it differs in some respect from English Common Law) but still the actions of the vice squad in arresting suspects and interrogating them seems to be free of some of the restrictions which have become common in UK crime fiction narratives. Again the short time available may mean that everything is streamlined for the narrative. The series has a team of writers and directors, the most used being the writer Hola Guapa (13 episodes) and the director Jakob Verbruggen (19 episodes). Verbruggen went on to direct both US and UK series including The Fall in the UK in 2013. Jan Vancaillie photographed the whole of series 1. I thought at first that the format would limit the range of locations but we do eventually get to see a bit more of the Ghent city region which has roughly the same population as Bradford (around half a million) but not the same range of landscapes I suspect. Ghent also seems much less of a multiracial city compared to both UK cities and to Brussels and Liège (with which I’m more familiar). The camerawork does attempt hand-held sequences and also both long shots and big close-ups. The latter often signal the flashbacks for Hannah’s trauma.

I will definitely complete at least Series 1 and if you are a crime fiction fan I would certainly recommend the series. If you stick with it past the first two or three episodes I think you will enjoy it as much as me. Don’t be put off by the sleazy connotations of ‘sex crimes’, the range of stories and the ‘human interest’ angles are all there.

GFF19 #16: For a Happy Life (Pour vivre heureux, Belgium-Luxembourg 2018)

Amel (Sofia Lesaffre) and Mashir (Christoper Zeerak)

This was the fourth Francophone film I saw in Glasgow that was directed by a woman and explored the possibilities of the family melodrama. Although in many ways a conventional narrative, there were several interesting facets of its setting and the screening was followed by a lively Q&A. The film is credited to Salima Glamine and Dimitri Linder as co-writers and directors of their first feature and in the Q&A Salima spoke first while Dimitri had one baby in his arms and another toddler having fun running around. The Q&A chair and the interpreter managed very well. Salima described herself as Algerian-French and the central character of the film is 17 year-old Amel played by Sofia Lesaffre as the daughter of a single-parent Algerian taxi driver (Pascal Elbe). I don’t remember any reference to Amel’s mother. Amel’s high school friends include a tearaway white girl Chloë (Salomé Dewaels)and Sima (Arsha Iqbal), a Pakistani girl from a traditional family. At the family wedding feast for Sima’s oldest brother we get the first inkling that Amel knows Mashir (Christopher Zeerak), Sima’s other brother who is 22.

The cousins Sima (Arsha Iqbal) and Noor (Atiya Rashid) in school

Amel and Mashir have a secret relationship and they plan to find a way to escape family scrutiny by each separately moving to London. Amel tries to get a post as an au pair and Mashir is a computer engineer with prospects. All appears to be going well until the arrival of Mashir’s cousin, Noor (Atiya Rashid) who has been living in Berlin. She too joins the same high school class as Amel who tries to make her welcome. Noor believes that she will be able to marry a young man in Berlin, but now her parents are in Brussels and in contact with Mashir’s family there are all kinds of dangers as the inevitable meeting of parents prompts thoughts about a marriage between cousins.

‘For a Happy Life’ is a title that describes the dilemma for all concerned – how to act in such a way that everyone is happy. That’s probably not always possible, but some actions might be more damaging than others. Amel is clearly the character out on a limb. Fortunately Sofia Lesaffre gives a spirited performance in this lead role and her energy drives the film through its 85 minutes, ensuring a full-blown family melodrama. It’s no surprise that she strides around in her bright red jacket. I found the film intriguing and enjoyable, but I had lots of questions about the Pakistani community in Brussels, wondering how life for second generation teenagers might compare to that of young South Asians in Bradford.

Amel’s father Karim (Pascal Elbe) is a more ‘modern’ single parent and he is looking for a new female companion

Salima Glamine suggested that they simply chose the Pakistani community as a traditional community that might be threatened by interaction with a young woman like Amel. She explained that when she discovered there weren’t that many actors within the Belgian (or Parisian) Pakistani communities she used social media to find non-professionals who were prepared to join the cast. Only Javed Khan who plays Noor’s father was a professional actor (he has appeared in a number of Indian and British films. Since I don’t speak or understand French or Urdu well enough to detect accents I have no idea how the various family members in the film sound. The film seems to have gone down well with Belgian audiences and critics and it won both the audience and critics’ prizes at the Namur Francophone Film Festival. Nobody at the Glasgow screening mentioned the accents so I’m none the wiser on that score.

The film was presented in CinemaScope and I was impressed with its handling of a young romance and of the importance of social media in the lives of the young women in particular. There are shocks in the film and one is when a mobile phone is thrown out of a speeding car window. Needless to say the phone’s owner is soon seen ‘unboxing’ a new iPhone. In some ways, social media and traditional families don’t mix –things can happen too quickly and secrets can become known everywhere in a matter of seconds. It’s a far cry from the novels of the 19th century with hand-written letters and the reading of wills which seemed so important in generating melodrama presentations in theatre and early cinema adaptations. This is a first feature but Salima is an experienced actor and Dimitri has been a production manager on several high-profile Belgian films and I don’t think the film feels like a début directing effort.

Salima and Dimitri had worked before with youth groups in Paris and Brussels and we learned that so far it has been shown to around 5,000 teen agers in Belgium. It was important that the film’s ending has the suggestion of a future for the characters so many young audiences were asking for a sequel. One questioner, from Brussels, said he knew the Anderlecht area of the city very well but he wasn’t aware of the problems about arranged marriages which he ‘d noted were much more likely to be discussed in the British media. Salima’s response, that the community in Brussels is ‘first generation’ and more concerned about children ‘marrying out’ of the community, seems to make sense. Someone else asked if the actors raised any questions about being represented as the Pakistanis we saw in the film. Salima suggested that they did discuss the characters with the actors  who suggested minor changes in the details but they were quite happy with the ‘core’ events of the story.

This is the kind of film we should see from Belgium in cinemas or on TV. My impression is that there are many interesting films about migration and the experiences of mixed communities coming from a range of European countries and we should be engaged with these issues in the UK. This is another reason why Brexit seems such a bad idea.

Here is a trailer in French (with French subs for the Urdu)

GFF19 #11: Alone at My Wedding (Seule à mon mariage, Belgium-Romania 2018)

Pamela (Alina Serban) and Bruno (Tom Vermeir)

This was one of my real ‘finds’ at Glasgow. It is the first fiction feature of the documentary filmmaker Marta Bergman and was selected as one of the candidates for the ‘Audience Award’ competition. It’s not hard to see why. Marta Bergman was in attendance and she proved a fascinating guest. Alone at My Wedding was screened in the ‘ACID’ (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema) programme at Cannes in 2018. This programme features films that might have difficulty finding a distributor and currently this film is looking for distribution via the sales company Cercamon.

Pamela has long periods on her own to think about her situation

Marta Bergman, originally from Bucharest, studied at film school in Belgium and then returned to Romania to make documentaries. This first fiction feature has taken several years to make and clearly draws on the documentary experience. It mixes professional and non-professional actors. The narrative is relatively straightforward. Pamela (Alina Serban) is a single mother in her twenties living with her toddler Rebeca and her grandmother in a Roma community in a village on the outskirts of Bucharest. She has to find ways of earning money to buy food and decides eventually that the only way to survive is to find a rich husband via the internet. This isn’t easy (and requires her to raise money for the fees) but eventually, through an agency, she makes contact with Bruno (Tom Vermeir) in Brussels and agrees to fly to Belgium. She leaves Rebeca behind with her grandmother and tries to make a new life for herself in Brussels, sending the money Bruno gives her home to Romania. I won’t spoil what happens to her (and Rebeca) but I will say that Marta Bergman tells a human story in which some good things happen and Pamela is frustrated in her attempts to ‘get ahead’. Bruno is not a typical man who orders a ‘mail-order bride’, but even when it is clear that he wants the best for Pamela it doesn’t necessarily mean their relationship will work. There are Roma in Brussels and Pamela finds them easily enough. Meanwhile, things are happening in Bucharest where Marian (who might be the baby’s father) is concerned about Rebeca.

Marian (Marian Samu) with Rebeca (Rebeca Anghel)

The film succeeds partly because Alina Serban is a terrific actor and a bubbling vivacious personality. She appears younger than her 30 years as listed on IMDb and she lives up to the database description of an ‘award-winning actor, playwright and director’. Marta Bergman told us that Alina was primarily a theatre actor but she does have previous film and TV experience. Tom Vermeir is also a theatre actor and he had to develop his Brussels French after working in Flemish theatre. Bergman’s documentary background is evident in the way she makes use of small gestures, some of which have come from observation of families in Bucharest. For instance, early in the film we see Pamela trudging through the snow with a bucket of water because her home has no running water. Later in Bruno’s flat she often leaves the water running, holding her fingers under the flow, revelling in its availability.

I enjoyed this film very much and I hope it gets a UK release. I’d like to show it to students and in the current Brexit climate it provides a powerful story about ‘living abroad’. If I have one slight criticism, it might be that at around 2 hours the film might be too long. By this I don’t mean that the material doesn’t warrant the length – there is more I would want to know – but that perhaps a slightly shorter, tighter narrative might appeal more to distributors? Having said that, I heartily recommend the film as it stands.

GFF19 #2: Ceux qui travaillent (Those Who Work, Switzerland-Belgium 2018)

Frank is forced to take a long hard look at himself

This European co-production helmed by Swiss writer-director Antoine Russbach is a gripping drama, part moral tale, part family melodrama starring one of the great actors of Francophone cinema, Olivier Gourmet. Gourmet, the Belgian actor who almost defines the Dardenne Brothers’ films, is in nearly every scene as Frank, the archetypal ‘hard-working man’. The narrative begins with Frank caught up in the middle of a regular occurrence. He is a project manager for a shipping company which organises container traffic on ships bringing a range of goods to Europe. As far as I can work out, Frank is based in Francophone Geneva and the ship in this case is heading to Marseille from West Africa. In his conversations with the ship’s captain, Frank speaks English.

Frank has to solve problems and this is very difficult when the chartered flights ships are old and unreliable, the multinational crews are not always well-trained or well-paid and there are plenty of possible ways of making mistakes. Frank has to make a decision just as he is picking up the youngest of his five children from school because she is sick. He makes a morally reprehensible decision and later he will pay for his ‘mistake’ – even though it will save the company a great deal of money.

In this early section, the film seems to question the Protestant work ethic and the capitalist desire for profit above morality. Frank is a farmer’s son brought up in the ‘school of hard knocks’ – something he tries to explain to his four older children. He will then realise that his obsession with work – which has brought the family a swimming pool and many other luxury items – has also led to a neglect of his role as husband and father.

I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure any more, but I will note that his relationship with his youngest daughter is, in a way, his salvation in what becomes a family melodrama. I’ve read at least one review that suggests that the film has a ‘feelgood’ ending. I can’t agree with that but it is an abrupt ending and I may have misunderstood it. It seems to find a ‘human ending’ – signified by Frank’s rapprochement with his family, but also implies that he will go back to the same kind of work with similar possible consequences for projects that might go ‘wrong’.

Those Who Work is a conventional film with many familiar scenes and typical characters. Yet it never fails to engage and Gourmet’s performance holds everything together with great skill. His character explains that as a child he was never allowed to speak his mind and here Frank pauses before he speaks in a deliberate manner.

I don’t agree with the ideology of the film’s conclusion, but overall I found this an impressive production which I would like to see in UK cinemas. This entry in GFF’s ‘Window on the World’ strand made for a strong beginning for my visit to the festival.