The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Johan Van Schaeren

Johan Van Schaeren

Founder and general co-ordinator, Fonk / Documentary film-maker (1972)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m founder and general co-ordinator of the non-profit Fonk, a film organization located in the heart of Leuven. It’s been active since 1995, and currently includes seven different film projects; the most known being Cinema ZED, DOCVILLE, the Leuven International Short Film Festival and Dalton Distribution. At first, Fonk started off as a hobby, but it started to get a bit out of hand, and since 2001 it’s become my full-time job. I would say Fonk’s a dream come true: I always had an irresistible urge to create things, even as a child or budding teenager. And it was always my dream to become my own boss, independent and completely free. And this is exactly how I feel in and about my job now, despite all the hard work and responsibilities. In addition, another important creative side-project I’ve been working on these last few years concerns the production of historical documentaries. Otherwise, I live with my partner and two children outside of the city in Kessel-Lo, just a few km from where I work.

How do you perceive Leuven? In your view, what kind of city is it?

Leuven is unique because it’s small, compact, comprehensible; whilst simultaneously remaining very open-minded and diverse. This has to do, amongst other things, with the University as a source of a permanent influx of people, students and staff from all over the country and even the world. With all the tourists and many international employees working for global, Leuven-based companies, it’s not surprising to hear a wide variety of languages when you walk through the streets. It creates quite the cosmopolitan atmosphere for such a small city. It’s a very lively city overall. As the father of two teenagers, I fear there’s not so many other suitable places left in the country to raise your kids: it’s a good-sized, cyclist-friendly town; with plenty of facilities, activities and parks.

The cultural sector in which I’m active in is exceptional, certainly in comparison to other similarly-sized towns. Cultural activities are extensive and diverse, and all the different acting organisations do very well for themselves, attracting broad audiences. This of course has to do with the profile of the inhabitants during the academic year: the city has a very highly educated population, and tend to form a large segment of participants.

It’s not surprising to hear a wide variety of languages when you walk through the streets. It creates quite the cosmopolitan atmosphere for such a small city.

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

There are many aspects that give Leuven it’s unique appeal: the combination of the many recognized historical sites, the University, the many high-tech, media and creative companies that are active here and, as mentioned previously, the broad and active cultural sector. All of this makes for a solid creative spirit – which was certainly not always the case. Around the time we started the Leuven International Short Film Festival in the mid-90s, the general consensus was that you left Leuven for Antwerp, Brussels or Ghent as soon as possible, especially if you were really serious about your career as a creative professional or were seeking some street credibility. Thankfully, those times are over: our generation helped to turn the tide. Collectives like fABULEUS, Braakland/ZheBilding, the Short Film Festival, Het Depot and many others – together with urban initiatives like the renewed Tweebronnen and M-Musuem – have all started a strong dynamic. And finally, the city has always been known for its vast variety of cafés and endless terraces. They are still here, and together with a high concentration of restaurants, create a lively atmosphere in the city centre – especially during the summer.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

The city has had a big influence on my daily life and who I am, for a variety of reasons: I met my partner at the University, and founded the Short Film Festival here in 1995. Leuven is the city I call home, in which I raise my kids, work, attend events, see movies, and hang out with friends. Hell, I even make historical films about the city. None of this was ever planned out, but rather came together pretty organically. Sometimes I wonder if my close affinity to the city is in a way limiting or narrowing my gaze and life – but then I realise that a resident Ghent or Antwerp local would never even think of such a thing, let alone consider the thought. And so, I made peace with it.

The new Leuven: a bit eco-urban hip whilst still remaining totally unpretentious, relaxed, very friendly and open to all sorts of publics.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

There are many things to improve in Leuven: as in many other cities nowadays, Leuven is struggling under its mobility problem, especially in regard to public bus transport. They tend to drive pretty recklessly, cutting right across Grote Markt between pedestrians, or occasionally blocking the main avenues. Its bicycle policy also leaves much to be desired. Leuven is the ultimate cyclist city of Flanders – nowhere else will you find as many cyclists per inhabitant – but nevertheless, there are still too few bike paths and too many dangerous intersections. In addition, one feels that bike policy in Leuven was made to some extent by people who only cycle for leisure, rather than for daily use. Also, the obsession of the City with wrongly placed bicycles in the streets is very annoying – it mainly arises from an overbearing pursuit of public cleanliness and tidiness. As a city, you need to allow a bit of (controlled) chaos, a little bit of disorder. Sure, Leuven is well organized and neat – but sometimes, it’s too neat.
Another problem is that living in the city has become extremely expensive. In a way, Leuven is the victim of its own success: the attractiveness of the city and the growing number of inhabitants has pushed prices to unprecedented heights. The negative consequences of this are underestimated: a new generation of young, talented, creative and entrepreneurial folks are turning towards the surrounding cities like Mechelen / Malines or Tienen / Tirlemont, since property in Leuven is no longer affordable.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

Putting my TripAdvisor hat on, I would recommend the following: I would first send them to the city centre on a Saturday morning to visit the weekly deli food-market, flee-market, and the many original specialty shops in the surroundings of Brusselsestraat, Parijsstraat and Mechelsestraat. Afterwards, you can have a drink on the terrace of De Bib library: a beautifully renovated, large building in the centre of the city where you’ll find a nice atmosphere and ambiance. Afterwards, you could visit M-Musuem where you can check out one of its many exhibitions. Leave M, walk over towards Ladeuzeplein and the University Library – a building with a distinctive history. At the top of the tower of this building you can enjoy an amazing view of the city. Once night falls, head towards the new Sluispark in the Vaartkom neighbourhood, a historically industrial area which after years of neglect was finally successfully transformed into new, trendy urban district. Have a drink in De Hoorn, a renovated old building of Stella (now known as AB InBev) transformed into the headquarters of companies. By late afternoon, I would like to send my guests to Cinema ZED, our new cinema in the centre of the city. After the movie head to the nearby Bar Stan, a relatively new, cosy café. In a way, this café represents the new Leuven: a bit eco-urban hip whilst still remaining totally unpretentious, relaxed, very friendly and open to all sorts of publics. This day’s trip is just a small slice of all that Leuven has to offer – but hopefully afterwards, my guests will understand why I find Leuven to be such a nice and relaxed place to live in.