Film historian Wouter Hessels selects 11 Belgian movies

Poet, performer and active at Brussels film school RITCS as coordinator of its cinema, Wouter Hessels is an avid lover of all things cinematic. Passing on his knowledge to students at RITCS, Antwerp’s KASK academy and Brussels’ VUB University as a film history teacher, we asked the man to give us a small lesson in homegrown movie history, which resulted in a compelling selection of 11 (often lesser-known) classics.

1. “Meeuwen sterven in de haven / Seagulls Die in The Harbour” – Roland Verhavert, Ivo Michiels & Rik Kuypers – 1955

Back in the 1950s, when most Flemish films were cheap and quickly made comedies in Antwerp dialect, a genuine film noir was directed by three men, inspired by Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”. Set in the city of Antwerp with music by Jazz musician Jack Sels, film critic Roland Verhavert, filmmaker Rik Kuypers and Ivo Michiels paid a wonderful homage to the international film noir style. “Meeuwen sterven in de haven” is the first cosmopolitan Belgian film, and has outstanding acting performances of Julien Schoenaerts, Tone Brulin, Dora Van der Groen and Tine Balder. Moreover, it was selected for the Cannes film festival.

2. “Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre / From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom” – Paul Meyer – 1960

The Belgian Ministry of  Public Education asked Paul Meyer to make a documentary about the successful integration of the children of foreign workers in the Borinage region. Instead, Meyer made a semidocumentary portraying the multiple contradictions and problems lived by mostly Italian families. And while Meyer’s film was rejected by the Ministry, it offers a critical and poetic view on the living and working conditions of Italian miners and their children. Like “Misère au Borinage” (1933) by documentary pioneers Henri Storck and Joris Ivens, “Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre” is a landmark in Belgium’s social and political cinema. The film is also an important missing link within Italian neorealist cinema.  Only recently Cinematek restored the film and edited a dvd.

3. “De Man die zijn haar kort liet knippen / The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short” – André Delvaux – 1965

Art-lover, teacher and director André Delvaux adapted the autobiographical novel written by cinephile Johan Daisne. Delvaux introduced the literary magic realism into cinema. The cinematographic story of teacher Govert Miereveld, who falls tragically in love with a female pupil, can be considered as the start of the Belgian modernist cinema, influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, amongst others. And it features some marvellous close-ups of the beautiful, young Polish actress, Beata Tyszkiewicz.

4. “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” – Chantal Akerman – 1975

Chantal Akerman was only 25 years old when she made her magnum opus, “Jeanne Dielman”, a fascinating and more than three hours long minimalist film about the daily and empty routine of a housewife. The performance of the French diva Delphine Seyrig  as housewife Jeanne Dielman is stunning. Nearly the whole crew was female and in that sense, Akerman made a strong statement against the patriarchal and paternalistic film world in the mid 70s. “Jeanne Dielman” became an international landmark in feminist, avant-garde cinema.

5. “Harpya” – Raoul Servais – 1979

The Belgian animation film pioneer and magician of Ostend, Raoul Servais combined animation, photography and live action filmmaking in “Harpya”. It isn’t a nice, sweet poetic story. A harpy is a mythological figure, half- woman, half-vulture. “Harpya” offers a violent vision on authority and domination. This animation short reveals human terror and suffering in an imagery inspired by René Magritte’s surrealist paintings. Servais was offered the Golden Palm for this animated jewel.

6. “De Witte van Sichem” – Robbe de Hert – 1980

In 1934 Edith Kiel and Jan Vanderheyden adapted the classic novel by Ernest Claes and “De Witte” in black and white, which became the first sound film in Flemish cinema. Robbe de Hert, provocative leading man of the independent Fugitive Cinema in Flanders, felt inspired by the mischievous boy, De Witte, who was living in rural Flanders of 1900. As a young brat I identified easily with the colourful rebel, De Witte – I played the role myself in a theatre production.

7. “Brussels By Night” – Marc Didden -1983

Rock journalist Marc Didden wrote and directed an openly existentialist, rebellious film that recounts the lonely wanderings of a desperate anti-hero, Max. The film isn’t a heimatfilm, nor an adaptation of a literary classic. The original and self-willed screenplay portrays suffering characters in an already multicultural Brussels. I saw the film before I moved from a small Flemish village to the big city Brussels.

8. “Toto le héros / Toto the Hero” – Jaco Van Dormael – 1991

“Toto le héros” is a playful, ironic film about Thomas, a man haunted by the conviction that his life has been lived by someone else.  Jaco Van Dormael tackles, in a twisted way and inspired by popular culture, the uncertainty of identity, the protagonist’s identity, that of the narrative, Belgium and even Europe. Van Dormael continues the magic realist vein, introduced by his professor at the filmschool INSAS, André Delvaux.  “Toto le héros” was one of the first successful European coproductions and was awarded the Golden Camera for best debut  in Cannes.

9. “C’est arrivé près de chez vous / Man Bites Dog” – Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel & Benoît Poelvoorde – 1992 

“C’est arrivé près de chez vous” is a fantastic low-budget horror comedy and grainy mockumentary shot on 16mm film.  This Belgian cultfilm portrays Ben, a serial killer who is filmed and interviewed by a documentary film crew. The now famous Belgian actor, Benoît Poelvoorde, gives his best performance ever. “C’est arrivé près de chez vous” tackles topics such as reality television and serial killing with fabulous black and absurd humour.

10. “La Promesse / The Promise” – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne – 1996

After 20 years of documentaries (and two fiction films) the Dardenne brothers surprised with “La Promesse”, a film that is very touching in its plainness, directness and humanity. In the film, the fifteen-year-old Igor has to turn against his father who is exploiting immigrants and in doing so, Igor’s own moral consciousness and sense of responsibility grow. “La Promesse” is a contemporary, documentary-style parable of human dignity that recalls the “Dekalog” stories (1988) of Krzysztof Kieslowski. “La Promesse” meant also the international break-through of the Dardenne’s universal filmmaking that stimulates reflection on human life and living.

11. “Home” – Fien Troch – 2016

Fien Troch is one of the most talented young Belgian directors. With her fourth feature film, a bleak drama called “Home”, she once again explores human miscommunication. She focuses on the dysfunctional relationships between parents and their adolescent children. The different generations aren’t listening to each other, and one mother is completely deranged which provokes an extremely violent final act. The parents don’t really know that their kids aren’t all right. The teenagers don’t listen, they seem only interested in casual sex, smoking weed and checking their smartphones. The rough and direct shooting style in boxy images and even smartphone images intensify the strong emotional impact of “Home”.