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.

Sahim Omar Kalifa

Sahim Omar Kalifa

Film-maker and scenario writer (1980)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m a film-maker and scenario writer, having already made several short films like Land of the Heroes, Baghdad Messi and Bad Hunter. My films have won 97 international awards so far, and were selected for the Oscars as one of their ten finalist films, twice in a row – an absolute honour for me. My long feature film Zagros was just completed a couple of months ago, and will be screened at several national and international film festivals – in Belgium specifically, starting November. As a film-maker from Leuven, I spend a lot of time writing scripts, meeting with producers, carrying out research, casting, scouting locations and attending film festivals around world. It’s a pretty tough career path, since it’s a culmination of different jobs, all to be done at the same time. But lots of passion, love and enthusiasm for your craft always helps.

How do you perceive Leuven?

In 2001, I came to Belgium – specifically to a refugee centre in Luik / Liège. Two months later I moved to Leuven, not because of a love for the place, but rather more simply, to join my parents and siblings who were already there. Leuven is a really small city and is very calm when the students have left the city for the weekend. I confess that I hope that Leuven will become more like Ghent and Brussels one day: more multicultural, with a larger selection of activities and nightlife.

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

Several reasons as to why I got stuck in Leuven: it’s strategical geographic position, and proximity to Brussels and Mechelen / Malines. It paradoxically has both an urban and provincial feel to it, which I really appreciate. Several local film festivals and cultural activities like Leuven International Short Film Festival and DOCVILLE International Documentary Film Festival lie very close to my heart. There’s also plenty of excellent cafés, like in STUK or OPEK. I really like the place where I live, the Wilsele neighbourhood along the Vaartkom canal, because of its rural, historically industrial and peaceful advantages. And last but definitely not least, I still have a lot of family living here.

The gap between locals and the migrant community is especially astonishing.

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

I have some very interesting memories in Leuven: for one, I’m able to find inspiring places to write my stories and scenarios. Also, my 2008 graduation film NAN was entirely filmed in Leuven. It went on to win a VAF Wildcard award as Best Graduate Film, at Leuven International Short Film Festival. Winning this award only further fuelled my desire to keep on making quality movies. Furthermore, all my films have so far been selected for competition at said festival.

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

I’m really happy with what we have now – but I’m also confident that it could be improved, especially in terms of the social interactions between locals, outsiders, immigrants and students. Something I’m convinced Leuven’s really missing out on. The gap between locals and the migrant community is especially astonishing. For me, it’s really important to organise more parties and events between locals and the rest, to create a relationship of belief, understanding, respect, knowledge and support. Otherwise, life is just going to stay dull for everyone.

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

It all really depends on what you want to do – but it has to be said that Leuven’s been changing for the good these last few years. For example, the unofficially relocated city centre at the Vaartkom is really worth a trip: in this neighbourhood, you can easily find very interesting, inspiring and quiet places. It’s also possible to reach these parts if you walk along the canal from mine at Wilsele.