Documentary filmmakers Gerard-Jan Claes and Olivia Rochette live and work in Brussels. Rarely a sentence worth a dime a dozen, the likes of which are frequently used in bio-blurbs, was so telling. Their new documentary Grands travaux is, indeed, just that: living and working in Brussels. For the filmmaking duo as well as for the pupils at the vocational school Anneessens-Funck with whom they collaborated.
In previous work, Claes and Rochette already paid attention to the environment in which youngsters grow up, and to the way their world is imagined. In 2010, they graduated from KASK / School of Arts in Ghent with Because We Are Visual, an audiovisual essay that encapsulates the diverse, exuberant mood swings of young YouTubers. The meandering montage of online video diaries exudes both the carefree freedom and the stifling oppression young people experience while frankly and unpretentiously expressing their grief, dreams, mischief and joy. The characters of Because We Are Visual realize that they are flirting with the boundaries between private and public, but embrace the anonymous public space of the Internet. After all, in these images they exist.
With their graduation film, Claes and Rochette won a Wildcard from the Flemish Audiovisual Fund, which allowed them to start with Grands travaux. But first they made their debut film Rain (2012), commissioned by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance company Rosas, for which they have been providing audiovisual work since their student days. The documentary Rain turns to the restaging of De Keersmaeker’s eponymous choreography at the Ballet de l’Opéra national in Paris. Through the preparatory work of the dancers, the film looks at the friction between classical ballet and contemporary dance in the wings of the Opera. The personal involvement of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who often follows the rehearsal process from a distance, breaks through in recordings of telephone conversations with her closest collaborators. Again, the cinematic space embodies an encounter.
In 2013, Rochette and Claes co-founded the production and distribution platform Zéro de conduite with teacher and documentary filmmaker Elias Grootaers. Together, they organize film programs at the Beursschouwburg, where Rochette and Claes have been ‘associated artists’ from 2013 to 2016. In 2013, they were also co-founders of Sabzian, an online platform whose agenda and reflections about cinema set out to foster a vivid cinephile culture. These initiatives contribute to a discursive space in which films and reflections about films incite each other to constantly re-think how cinema relates to life.
The interplay of reading and writing, showing and looking, filming and being filmed also sparked their latest film, Grands travaux. Searching for form as filmmakers, they find the boys at Anneessens-Funck searching for a home, work, a future... Claes and Rochette made a film in close collaboration with the youngsters Ahmadou Barry, Mamadou Diallo, Achmed Xussein and Mohamed Abdi. They met each other in a game of forms, in a film.
Spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself.
Georges Perec, Species of Spaces [Espèces d’espaces], 1974.
Bjorn Gabriels: Your film is largely set in the vocational school Anneessens-Funck in the heart of Brussels. Rightly or wrongly, both the school and the city call up all sorts of associations. Where did Grands travaux start for you?
Gerard-Jan Claes: Very early on, we already thought of the title Grands travaux. Various associations became attached to it, even though not all of them explicitly ended up in the film. We saw a lot of those ideas converging in Anneessens-Funck, the school where Grands travaux mainly takes place. Firstly, the title refers to the major construction works that were carried out in Brussels in the fifties and sixties, which turned the entire city into a building site. Closely related to this, there’s the contrast between the plans that shape a city from a bird’s-eye view and the way these plans are eventually realized in public space. These interventions have become the symbol of the problems that characterize Brussels up to this very day.
As Rudi Laermans points out in his book Ruimten van cultuur [‘Spaces of Culture’] (2001), these post-war ‘great works’ [grands travaux] ushered in an urban catastrophe that has weighed heavily on the city’s political lethargy. Brussels has become a very fragmented city. We see it all around us every day. I grew up in Brussels and have always experienced the city as a place in a perpetual state of demolition and construction. This city is looking for its form, and struggles in appropriating an image.
An image, a phantasm has dominated the post-war history of this city, but in an imperfect manner. Modernizing has become a permanent condition in Brussels: demolition, building boom, destruction, and pouring concrete. Incessant dilapidation over here, renovations over there: this city dies continually, but always in other places, so they too can be done up permanently, renewed, restored. In short, Brussels is a verb, but hardly anyone still knows why the ‘Grands travaux’ once started and continue to this very day.
Rudi Laermans, Ruimten van cultuur, 2001.
Olivia Rochette: There’s this lovely reportage by RTBF [the French-language national broadcaster] from 1966 that talks about the impact of these construction works and already advocates a more human modernism. At the beginning of the reportage, the journalist stands amid what appears to be a ruin while he describes the on-going activities. Even then, Brussels was a city where construction and demolition could go on undisturbed, without considering the consequences. Because of that, Brussels lives in a permanent state of change. As filmmakers, we are very much attracted to that elusive multiplicity.
Here, we’re not standing among the ruins of a city that was destroyed by a bombing, an earthquake or a rebellion. (...) We are not in Vietnam or in Leuven. We’re just standing in the center of Brussels. As you can see, it’s not always necessary to travel far to witness certain destructions. (...) Recently, some foreigners told me: Brussels is truly amazing. Anywhere you go, people are building. And everywhere at the same time.
Reporting programme 9.000.000, RTBF, June 7th, 1966.
Still, your film doesn’t focus on the Brussels of city developers. It’s mainly interested in the spaces inhabited by the youngsters, especially their school.
Rochette: We really liked the link between the work the boys do at school and the construction work that goes on in Brussels. Just about everything in our film deals with the theme of ‘work’. That basic concept can be read in many different ways. The ‘travaux’ [‘works’] of the title refers, among other things, to the boys’ vocational training. They are required to carry out a number of ‘small works’. They have to install bedroom or bathroom electrical wiring, place an intercom or draw the circuit diagram for a new home. They also receive job interview training that prepares them for advertising their services on the labour market.
School is a place where they work on their future, according to an imposed plan, similar to the ‘grands travaux’, which were intended to shape the future of Brussels. For us, Grands travaux is about how these boys try to organize their life in Brussels.
Claes: Work is a necessity of life, and determines how you experience the world. At the same time, work is structurally required to keep our capitalist society on track. In that respect, work also has a useless side to it. You just know that the construction works in Brussels mainly served to support the emerging Belgian welfare state. It didn’t matter what was done, as long as people worked.
Work is always on the agenda, but strangely enough it remains absent from most films. Except with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for example. Their characters always have to relate to a world that is also socio-economically determined, often in relation to labour.
One of the big wishes of the human kind is to transform things, to work on things to construct, to destroy, to sometimes construct again. And not only to look at the world, let’s say, passively. I think that’s the aim of humankind, being a man, a woman, is to change things. And cinema is about showing things that are changing.
Luc Dardenne in: Ariston Anderson, ‘The Dardenne Brothers: On Hard Work, Patience & Mentors’ on: 99u.com.
Finally, the ‘travaux’ in the title not only refers to the daily activities of young people, but also to the inevitable structuring aspect of filmmaking. For us, a film is always a construction. The building blocks have to fit together, otherwise the whole film falls flat and lacks movement or tension. The search for a working method was absolutely crucial to this film.
Looking for forms
In this film [À propos de Nice], by means of a city whose events are significant, we witness a certain world on trial.
Jean Vigo, ‘Toward a Social Cinema’, 1930, published on Sabzian.be, 2014.
Grands travaux then also is a way of exploring the very nature of your work as filmmakers.
Claes: In many ways, Grands travaux feels as if it were our first film. In 2010, we graduated with Because We Are Visual. For that film, we didn’t have to leave our room because all of the material came from YouTube, which is an inexhaustible source. We had to find the form of the film during the editing process.
Rochette: Then we made Rain, a film commissioned by Rosas in which both the framework we worked in and the relation to the people we filmed had been stipulated in our contract. In some respects, Rain was a more fixed film than Because We Are Visual. The Opéra national in Paris receives film crews all the time and specifies the locations and subject matter filmmakers are allowed to shoot. The ballet dancers we followed while they were rehearsing a choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are used to being filmed. Moreover, it was stated in advance that we had to make a film that ran from the auditions to the premiere of the performance. Nevertheless, we had a lot of freedom within this very strict framework. But with Grands travaux, there was no framework, everything was open.
Grands travaux felt as a next step, both aesthetically and practically. Once we had made the choice to make a film at Anneessens-Funck, we needed a bit of time to find the right track. When we started filming at Anneessens-Funck, the pupils’ reaction were often quite strong. They asked us – and rightfully so – why we had chosen that specific school and what we would be doing there exactly. Initially, we had trouble answering these pointed questions.
Claes: Our search also had a technical side to it. We had filmed Rain with a camera that was available to the production. For Grands travaux, we wanted a certain type of camera, since ultimately a camera dictates the way you look at things. We had to take into account our financial constraints – many professional cameras are simply too expensive for a long shoot. The affordable, semi-professional cameras we work with have several sensors, and since we couldn’t set up a lot of lights, the sensor size of the camera was crucial for the image we ended up with. In combination with certain lenses, each 35mm, 16mm, two-thirds, three-thirds or full-frame sensor offers a unique result. Many modern cameras have a very large sensor (35mm or full frame). There’s a certain aesthetic linked to this, in which you focus sharply on a very little detail while the rest of the image remains blurry.
Toying around with that limited depth of field often proves to be a rather clichéd approach to cinematic space.
Claes: Indeed, but for Grands travaux we wanted to have clarity and brightness in the image. We were looking for a camera that would create beautiful images in any lighting condition, without the blur dominating the image.
Rochette: We wanted the images to gradually soften into the background, like with 16mm.
Claes: The blur of 35mm creates an instant abstraction and makes you isolate certain details in the image. It often appears to me that whatever is vague in the image somehow doesn’t seem to matter. We, on the other hand, think it’s beautiful when the background is of equal import. It enhances your understanding of how a character relates to the space.
Rochette: We tested several cameras, including a 16mm celluloid camera. But we quickly came to the conclusion that we wanted to shoot digitally. Nowadays, 16mm film gets you a certain artistic capital, a false richness in your image. But then you really have to pinpoint why exactly you choose to work with 16mm film. It gives the image itself a fetish value. Our film is about boys going to school in Brussels in this day and age. We think 16mm film refers to another time.
Eventually, we opted for the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which has the size and the price of a smartphone. It’s a very good device given its price, but in the future we would like to work with a better camera. With a cheap digital camera, there’s always this sense that you have to engage in a battle with the machine.
You have chosen to work with static camera set-ups.
Rochette: In a way, we didn’t ‘chose’ that. We always work with a fixed frame. Grands travaux consists almost exclusively of medium shots. The 25mm lens we acquired for this film continuously influenced our distance to the subjects we were filming. We are very pleased with this lens. The choice to work with a camera on a tripod and with a fixed lens imposes certain restrictions. In documentary filmmaking, you always miss things, or you are late to film a situation. And with a tripod and a fixed lens you actually miss almost everything. You can’t zoom instantly to capture something, you need to physically move yourself and prepare your camera. That’s the opposite of ‘point and shoot’, but it wasn’t our intention to capture everything anyway. The choice in equipment forces you to think about the frame, about how you want to depict something. You have to choose a position. The choice of a particular camera is simultaneously limiting and liberating, since a considerable amount of the multiple options available have already been eliminated for you.
Many scenes in your film have a classic quality, for example with the medium shots, or waist shots, of the characters.
Rochette: We have filmed with classic camera setups and at eye-level. It may look simple, but it was very hard to find the right image. A lot of our footage was useless to us, because it was just a little too close or too wide, or because the light wasn’t good... Many scenes contain material from several days of shooting, so nearly every scene had to be build up step by step during the shoot. We have put a lot of thought into how we would shoot, even though the film itself doesn’t testify to that. There was a very thin line between usable and unusable images.
Claes: After a while, this classic découpage led us to a form of ‘simulation’. We re-staged short scenes, for example in the shot/reverse shot in which two boys discuss FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The shot/reverse shot is one of the basic building blocks of cinema, and to me it has something of a mature form. Incorporating the boys in that form makes them part of a beautiful game. Many daily activities at the school already had this aspect of simulation or playing too. We saw that in their job interview training, in their classroom presentations but also in their practical assignments. Each pupil has a small wooden cabin in which he works and makes his assignments. Those wooden cabins became like sets where the boys played themselves.
Rochette: Without us having to explain it to them, even if we could have done so, Barry, Mamadou, Ahmed and Abdi understood very well what we were looking for. As the shooting progressed, they, as well as we, got a better grasp of which tone and rhythm would work well. Encountering these particular boys lifted the whole film. They really had something special and were very open. This also had to do with their age. Some of the older pupils were tougher to interact with.
Claes: Grands travaux plays with a particular mise-en-scène, but its starting point remains observation, I think. We don’t try to find a form dictated by a certain idea, but start off with actual people and actual places. We always work within documentary cinema. The distinction between documentary and fiction is often regarded as redundant. Dutch documentary filmmaker Johan van der Keuken once said: “Light on a screen is always fiction.” But for us, there is still a difference between of them – documentary cinema simply exerts a different kind of tension. Van der Keuken himself also realized that. The end of Herman Slobbe (1966), his second film about blind children, expresses this quite well. When Van der Keuken leaves the boy Slobbe, the voice-over states: "Everything in the film is a form. Herman is a form. Goodbye, dear form.” The relationship between reality and form is inextricably linked to documentary cinema. In certain fiction cinema that doesn’t play with that tension, the stakes appear really different to us.
The positioning of the boys appears very measured, for example when they have a job interview exercise in the classroom, which is even more emphasized by the succession of shot and reverse shots.
Rochette: We knew this exercise would be part of their lessons. A job interview is a game between two people anyhow, interacting from opposite perspectives. We had decided in advance to include a second camera, which was handled by Ruben Desiere. It’s the only scene in the film that was shot with two cameras. We organized the mise-en-scène in a certain way, but that’s an arrangement you choose. Within this framework the classroom still moves freely. You are not in charge of everything.
In what way did you intervene in the conversations?
Rochette: Our interventions were minor. We never gave the boys a scripted dialogue, for example, but we did ask them to redo a particular conversation, in order to film it from a different angle. The observation gets framed, forced into a certain form or look. We didn’t ask them to turn off their mobile phones during the shoot, for example. If a character received a phone call when we were filming and a beautiful conversation ensued, we continued filming. We set up a framework and gave the boys some directives they could use in the shot: a certain action, a topic of conversation or a particular gesture.
Claes: We didn’t place them in a predetermined idea or script. Whatever they said belonged to them entirely. It’s their text, their stories and their anecdotes. This approach created a sort of concentration that gave an edge to everyday reality. Similar to what an amplifier does. Small cracks appeared in the reality the documentary created, which made the whole thing shift. There was always a balance between mise-en-scène and observation. We created a framework in which playing around was allowed. In this game, reality always took over. Them being teenagers broke through. A bond grew between us and the boys, in the way they performed certain things. That was really wonderful.
Rochette: As a viewer you’re invited to listen to a conversation about football or love, and you see how the boys relate to the world around them. It was truly remarkable how, after a while, they seemed capable of balancing a natural and a structured mode of talking when they had to repeat parts of a previous conversation. They really went along with the idea that film is a game. They soon realized that they could play with the spaces, their gestures, and the topics of conversation.
Like Because We Are Visual, Grands travaux focuses on the world of young people.
Claes: Looking at the three films we made up until now, it always seems that a certain youthfulness lies at their core. Because We Are Visual immerses you in a world mainly populated by young people. Rain focused, amongst other things, on the youngest dancer of the company [Léonore Baulac]. And now we’ve made a film in a school. I think this fascination has something to do with what appealed to us in the work of Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. He wrote a lot about youth and its relation to form.
(...) his ‘infatuation’ with Youth (Immaturity in the sense of the unformed, which still includes all possibilities) and his resistance to Form as rigidity.
Youth craves the form, that grip, which gives an imago. They, who know how to handle that form, i.e.: those who possess the power to impose form on others, are doomed to die because of their ‘maturity’. (...) [Gombrowicz imagines] variants of the ugliness that soaks and spoils situations and relationships once they ‘ripen’, succumbed to forms, schedules, categories. To give form is also to corrupt.
Hella S. Haasse, ‘Witold Gombrowicz’ in: SOMA, nr. 28, December 1972.
No matter how you look at it, like Gombrowicz has phrased it so eloquently: everything is in need of arrangement. Yet with youngsters, the form they assume is not yet fixed: it’s rather shaky, and still balances between a ‘mature’ and an ‘immature’ form. That’s important for us as filmmakers too: we try to see how forms don’t fossilize, but remain agile instead. That’s also part of the reason why we are so attracted to Brussels, since the city itself has a formless quality to it, and is continuingly searching for its own form.
In Because We Are Visual, you built a world out of YouTube images, in Grands travaux the boys’ interactions form the building blocks. Neither film, however, has been scripted in advance.
Claes: We’re very reluctant to cement anything beforehand. I always feel that we sketch out some guidelines with which we play. Just look at Out 1 (1971) by Jacques Rivette, in which he uses a improvisational strategy with some predefined elements that are thrown out before a group of actors. A certain form of fiction is created with those elements, but where this fiction finally ends up doesn’t really matter to Out 1 since, to a certain extent, the film is about the game itself. For Grands travaux, we wanted to work with a few topics of conversation. We played with elements such as football or finding a job, for example during phone calls, but where those conversations were headed to was still unclear at the time of us filming them. This resulted in an improvisation that was rooted in a specific situation in that particular place. We had no fixed script, that’s true, but we did collect photos, music, personal reflections, quotes and more contemplative texts that were relevant to the film. Together they formed the framework within which we worked. A bit like what Nicolas Philibert calls “programmer le hasard” [programming chance].
Rochette: With Because We Are Visual, we didn’t set out on a clear path either. We started from one image – a girl with pink panties who shows her body through a webcam – and from there on the film grew whilst editing. The difference is that Because We Are Visual and Rain ended up having a more fragmentary character than Grands travaux.
Claes: Grands travaux, on the other hand, has scenes of up to ten minutes that really respect a certain spatial and chronological logic.
Rochette: For our two previous films, we gathered material but only looked for tone, structure and rhythm when we started editing. Our approach wasn’t completely different now, but we did chose a certain form of editing, a découpage, while we were filming. The main difference was that we already worked on well-defined scenes during the shoot, and as a result the material had a logic to it that dictated a specific style of editing. This was new to us, and therefore also very exciting. It wasn’t possible to ‘save’ the film in the editing, so to speak, or to still drastically change course at that point.
The editing is less ostensibly present in Grands travaux, but it actually proved to be our hardest edit so far. It required more thought. We were repeatedly confronted with the choices we had made while filming, there was no way around them. Much of the editing work dealt with the internal dynamics of the different scenes, how a gaze takes you from one scene to the next, and how the scenes interrelate. The length of the scenes always dictated a certain structure.
Claes: The scenes we shot had something monolithic about them. In a text by Eric de Kuyper about Chantal Akerman, published on the website of Sabzian, De Kuyper says that Akerman’s long shots also resulted from a distrust of editing. After our two previous films, we wanted to distance ourselves a bit from the fragmentation of those earlier works. We noticed that we were looking for more directness. Moreover, this is the first time we worked with an editor from the very start. We were very fortunate to be able to work with Dieter Diependaele.
Editing can be looked at in different ways. Some editors have a very vertical approach, the ‘hard cut’ so to speak, while others, such as Dieter, go about their work more horizontally. When people mention a striking edit, they often refer to abrupt interventions in an eye-catching, vertical mode. That verticality may have its place in an edit, but even then it needs to be perceived as a rhythm, and with regard to its horizontality. We prefer working horizontally, paying meticulous attention to the rhythm of the film. The edit then functions as a movement through time that infuses the material with a certain spirit.
All of this closely relates to Johan van der Keuken’s idea that editing should put everything in its place in accordance with its value. And Dieter has an incredibly sensitive way of working that really fits with how we had already interacted with the characters and the material. Such a process takes time, because you can’t blindly chop through your material. It requires you to cautiously delve into the material and carefully try to knead it into a certain form. Dieter is an editor who diligently watches over this, and continues to sculpt the scenes until they find their value in the whole.
Small and direct
He who imagines himself too big for small works, is often too small for big works.
Like Grands travaux, Rain mostly consists of inside shots from one particular space, the Opéra national in Paris. Nevertheless, this time, the film’s relation with the space and the characters is different.
Claes: We have thought hard about how we could incorporate Brussels’ exteriors and the movements of the boys through the city. In the end, we decided to set the film almost entirely within the walls of the school, and Brussels enters in less direct ways. Compared to Rain, Grands travaux indeed has a different approach to the characters and the space.
Rochette: In Rain, viewers are kept more at a distance, and mostly remain in the role of observer. Even though there are a number of elements structuring the material, such as the young ballet dancer Léonore Baulac, the rehearsals or the opera house, the observation is clearer in Grands travaux.
Claes: With Rain, we really struggled with the rehearsals. We had to use all kinds of tricks to capture them, for which we filmed hands and the backsides of heads... This strategy is not better or worse than any other, but I did wonder why we had so much difficulties to uninhibitedly film certain things. With Grands travaux, we wanted whatever happened in front of the camera to be conveyed more directly. This more direct form is still contrived, but I do think that some scenes achieve a more straight-forward setup. This approach has also found its way into the sound design, which is less directive and less exuberantly present than in our previous films.
Rochette: The sound design is still important, but just like with the editing, certain things had simply become impossible for us to do. This time around, the images couldn’t bear asynchronous sound, with sounds running from one scene to the next. Grands travaux is much more about spaces. In close collaboration with sound mixer Thomas Gauder and sound editors Ingrid Simon and Sabrina Calmels, we have tried to use the sound to define the spaces in a precise and direct way. That’s how we have tried to film too: how do you define and construct those spaces, what’s your approach to the découpage?
Claes: I think it’s powerful when directness and clarity attain a philosophical significance, like they do in the films of Nicolas Philibert or Abbas Kiarostami. Their work is truly incredible. Kiarostami continually operates within a classic fiction strategy, but his works are always about the deduplication of fiction and documentary. In Where Is My Friend’s House? [Khane-ye Doust kodjast?] (1987), Kiarostami tells the story of a boy who gets lost on his way to his friend’s house. That’s such a simple setup, but because of the clarity with which the film is made, and Kiarostami’s attention to form, the film also seems to be about much more, about cinema itself for example, and about how we look at, or have come to see, reality.
Your work continuously deals with the way cinema and reality relate to each other. That has also been a recurring theme among the publications of the cinephile website Sabzian, which you have co-founded.
Claes: The founding of Sabzian is linked to a quest for a cinematic theoretical framework that we only started exploring after our graduation from KASK / School of Arts. I have the impression that we look at film differently (not necessarily in a better or worse way) than when we made Because We Are Visual. We also discovered the work of Johan van der Keuken, Pedro Costa and Wang Bing... They not only create incredibly beautiful films in which the relationship between cinema and the world plays a crucial role, they are also capable of discussing their work clearly and with a great deal of philosophical insight. But some of the voices we encountered on this quest, like Pedro Costa, can have a quite paralyzing effect on you at times. What do you do as a young filmmaker when, for example, at a Q&A during the Courtisane festival in Ghent, Costa says that it’s no longer possible to film tables or kitchens? Or that you can’t make a film about the sea anymore because it has been exhausted artistically? If this point of view weighs you down, it’s hard to still film uninhibitedly...
It’s important to reflect about film, but it can also serve as an obstruction to filmmakers and their films.
Claes: Theory is very important, if only to understand and expose clichéd forms, and acquire a better understanding of your own pitfalls. Sabzian was founded just because of that. The founders are all filmmakers who somehow have an appetite for theory, or feel the need to put certain forms into words. I’ve noted that Sabzian, the film programs by Zéro de conduite and our films all have a didactic aspect to them. For ourselves as well as for viewers and readers. They all start from a desire to reflect about what cinema can be, and express that cinema is a necessity in our relationship with the world and how we see reality.
Being didactic isn’t exactly fashionable these days.
Claes: All those things are didactic in the sense that we try to offer people a different way of seeing reality. We believe cinema can help shape that gaze.
Rochette: Despite this theoretical framework and our didactic intentions, a certain naivety still remains intact, especially when we’re filming. Many things sound very theoretical, but aren’t translated directly into the film.
Claes: Cinema is the art of the concrete. Perhaps, this also explains why it has become so difficult to come up with images: our culture is in a chronic crisis of the concrete. Nowadays, the ‘concrete’ is already so abstracted that it’s impossible to perform the essentially cinematographic act, namely ‘to concretize’. As filmmakers, we are really engaged with this, also within Sabzian. We want to make films that don’t require a manual, that speak for themselves and don’t make you think as such, but that simply are [form a presence]. This must always come first.
You have attempted to address this ‘chronic crisis of the concrete’ by expressing your interest in the boys themselves, in their actions and their words. Any symbolic reading is of secondary importance.
Rochette: This may be the very heart of our film: we look, with a great deal of concentration, at how people move and talk. In the boys’ daily conversations, we found the directness we wanted. Many films consider these types of conversations between young people as a brief illustration of how ‘people like them’ talk, or how we as filmmakers and viewers expect them to talk. We, on the other hand, let those conversations run their course. Our concentration, but also theirs, ensures that we can really see their actions and hear their words. As filmmakers, we have the ambition to look with proper patience at specific, small acts. We don’t want to squeeze our characters’ gestures into a universal symbolism. We do set out to create an image in which we, with the tools available to us as filmmakers, show how these boys carry themselves in this world and how they relate to it.
The expected film
(...) what might a contemporary film about the Paris suburbs look like, who would play the lead role? With what would we feed its dialogue? I would love to see that film and I wish people would consider it almost their most essential work to make it. That said, it can’t be taken for granted because there is a gloomy outlook that blocks fiction. (...) We must make it, because we haven’t seen it yet.
Serge Daney, La maison cinéma et le monde. 4. Le moment Trafic 1991-1992, 2015.
Grands travaux pays close attention to the boys’ day-to-day worries. Their future is taking shape before the viewer’s eyes. At the same time, many so-called opinion makers and internet trolls look down on these boys, and the place they grow up in, with set beliefs.
Claes: Anneessens-Funck has a tough reputation. Because of the social stigma that has become attached to the school, these boys run the risk of being seen solely ‘as a problem’. After the attacks in Paris and Brussels, we noticed how people harbored certain expectations about a film shot at Anneessens-Funck.
Rochette: When talking about Grands travaux, we often hear that it’s interesting to make a film about youngsters like them, certainly in these times. Sometimes, it seems as if they belong to a different world, where we as filmmakers have only resided for a short while.
Claes: Young people in Brussels are regularly featured in news coverage and documentaries, often in a negative way. The danger is that they are only called upon to illustrate themes such as violence, educational deprivation, unemployment, poverty, and so on. Brussels obviously has grave issues, but only showcasing its youngsters as an exemplification of those issues is very stigmatizing. It reduces them to a well-known representation, a template almost, that is reproduced over and over again. The media are often only interested in these young people because of a sense of urgency, or sensationalism. All of this is also reflected in certain expectations about our film. Conversations with teachers, social workers and other people have shown us that there was already an expected film out there, as if this subject or this space automatically generates its corresponding form.
Documentary cinema often also fosters the cliché of the counter-image, in which films are caught up in a self-imposed obligation to ‘correct’ mainstream representations, while actually not presenting a fundamentally different image themselves.
Claes: Indeed, counter-images are often equally problematic. Every image needs its opposite in order to be maintained. Succumbing to the dynamics of alternative representation in appearances only actually contributes to a representational standstill. We want to avoid linking a particular aesthetic to a particular subject matter. If a subject forces you to adopt a certain form, you’re essentially working along the lines of the expected film, aren’t you?
Nevertheless, these expectations somehow weigh on Grands travaux, partly because Bilal Hadfi, one of the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris on November 13 2015, went to school at Anneessens-Funck.
Claes: After the attacks in Paris and Brussels, people started to show more interest in our film. Television networks asked us to contribute to their current affairs programs. But we often thought: if it’s interesting today, it was already interesting the day before. For us, the problems in Brussels have to do with a sore that has been festering for years.
Our film does not provide answers to whatever expectations current affairs programs might have. We don’t claim to have analyzed the entire situation. The fact that Anneessens-Funck was dragged into the media storm surrounding the Paris attacks hardly changed anything actually. Neither to the film, nor to the boys we filmed, other than what was projected on the boys from the outside. Nevertheless, it’s still part of the space of Grands travaux, and the often grim perspectives that lie ahead of the boys.
Rochette: After the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, certain ideas started to impose themselves on the film, but we had never intended to tackle those issues. We don’t collect evidence for a pre-established thesis. Documentary cinema is about confronting reality. This means that the expectations filmmakers inevitably have too, collide with the concrete world you work with. The point is not to deny those expectations, but to allow yourself to contextualize or reject them through your film.
Claes: It’s remarkable how documentary cinema so often clings onto the idea of the ‘expected film’. When you make a film about a school like Anneessens-Funck, you seem to be forced to address certain issues. Can’t you just make a documentary about a school and...
Rochette: …just film its tiles…
Claes: That too can result in a very beautiful film. But documentaries always seem to create the expectation that you have to tackle a particular issue. With Rain, for example, we already felt in advance that we had to address, and even unhinge, the hierarchical system of the Opéra national. Other people wanted to see a classic behind-the-scenes documentary. And in some respects, Rain, by its very structure, also refers to that expected film. At a lecture he once gave in Tokyo, Pedro Costa talked about those expectations and he expressed very nicely what filmmaking is actually all about. According to him, making a film is first and foremost about the pleasure of working on a film.
The pleasure of making a film is in making a film, it’s not in showing a problem. The first reason to make a film is for the pleasure of making it, the pleasure of the work. If there’s no pleasure in the work, there’s nothing. So, what would be the most important characteristic of a documentary? It’s seeing that the person who made it did a good job, that’s the first thing, that he went up to something and worked on it. A film is always a documentary of its own filming, of its own making. Here, I’ll say that every film by Ozu and Mizoguchi is a film above all concerning artisans, concerning the pleasure of working, the work, that work is a good thing, and work well done is beautiful, it says everything, and that’s good enough for a film. The work that we see well done – that’s more important than the theme. For example, in the pleasure and work that I shared with others in making Ossos (Pedro Costa, 1997), my task was, first, to create an interesting and well-made film; and, second, to make it with people who didn’t know anything about cinema. This desire made a film that is, I hope, morally and cinematically interesting. This is not because it speaks of misery or suffering, but because it is constructed in a manner I believe to be very fair, correct.
Pedro Costa, ‘A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing’ in: Rouge, nr. 10, 2007.
You can also get caught up in a dynamic that makes you think you need to persecute someone, whether it’s those boys, the teachers or the educational system in general. But we definitely didn’t want to do that. I really detest ‘topical films’, films that illustrate Big Ideas. For me, a film should always start from materiality. And that was perhaps the most difficult question with regard to Grands travaux: what is the material of our film?
Rochette: We started from these particular boys – Barry, Mamadou, Abdi and Ahmed – and what structures their daily lives: soccer, girls, school, looking for a job, and trying to find a place to live on their own... That was what we liked about them, and that was what we wanted to work with. Grands travaux deals with all these little things we think are very important.
It’s also striking that you don’t take the bird’s-eye view you’ve mentioned earlier, or include the perspective of various educational or social experts. You shoot from within the intimacy of these boys’ lives.
Claes: We wanted to find an intimacy with the boys. We could only attain it through the way we shot our film, but also because after a while they allowed us into their daily lives.
Rochette: The form of the film is partly guided by the youngsters themselves too. Grands travaux focuses on everyday actions of individual boys. Moments like these are usually omitted from films because of the need to zero in on conflict and the development of a storyline. This reminds me once more of Johan van der Keuken, for whom a film consists of images shot when you come into contact with reality, and not as an illustration of what you already knew in advance.
There is another point: conventional narration presumes that you already knew the reality you describe, and that you also knew the characters you show in your film in advance. For me, and for some others, it’s precisely the opposite: I start from the feeling that I’m ignorant and that the images you make are ultimately the only knowable reality you’re left with. They are moments of contact, and of knowledge, the only residue from the world you have encountered. Generally, my films don’t consist of images that are part of an already existing entity, but they are moments the viewer can use to put together an image for himself. That image is formed in two stages: the filming/editing and the viewer’s observation of the film. It’s an exchange, two-way traffic. For me it’s important to note that the film’s information is also the only thing you know. That’s the idea of the tip of the iceberg, provided that only the portion above the water exists (in the film), because you know nothing of what’s under water and therefore it’s impossible for you to describe the entire iceberg. For example, in The New Ice Age [De nieuwe ijstijd] (Johan van der Keuken, 1974) the characters are not described ‘in their entirety’. What is shown is only what we’ve encountered when we were filming. It’s always a limited, fragmentary knowledge of everything that exists, and that’s how it’s shown.
Johan van der Keuken, Zien, Kijken, Filmen. Foto’s, teksten en interviews, 1980.
Here and now
When I’m making a film I’m always in reality. I’m among the trees and among the people like yourself. There’s no symbolic or conventional filter between me and reality, as there is in literature. The cinema is an explosion of my love for reality.
Pier Paolo Pasolini in: Carlo Hayman-Chaffey, Pier Paolo Pasolini. A Film Maker’s Life, 1971.
The three films you made so far are all set in spaces you are very familiar with. Because We Are Visual focused on virtual reality, which also plays a role in Grands travaux. Rain is partly about how the world of classical ballet relates to the world of contemporary dance, which you know well from your work for Rosas. And with Grands travaux, you turn your attention to Brussels.
Claes: I always assumed that exoticism was a bad starting point for a film, but I’m beginning to think that exoticism is part of a tension inherently related to film. Time and time again, we are confronted with ‘problems’ you can’t definitively solve. We will always remain outsiders at Anneessens-Funck, but that only becomes a ‘problem’ if it’s rendered as a problem in your film. Part of the tension that makes cinema so interesting precisely comes from the privilege of being an outsider. The first film program we organized with Zéro de conduite was called ‘To the Distant Observer’, named after the eponymous book Noël Burch wrote on Japanese cinema. That title points to what’s at stake in cinema. As a filmmaker you should try to find the right distance and adopt it in your work.
We want to make films here. Seeking out remote places is not a necessity per se. During the recent CINEMATEK program about Portuguese cinema, I read a lovely quote by Manoel de Oliveira about his relation to the city of Porto: “Porto is my territory, elsewhere I would be a spectator.”
In the early nineties, French critic Serge Daney described the connection between cinema and the world nearby with the metaphor of a thread running from his apartment in Paris to the film theatres he frequented. He regretted that the youth living in the Paris’ suburbs at that time had to miss that thread because there was a lack of imagination, which had brought about that their world had not ended up on film screens. In the mean time, many of the Parisian cinemas had already disappeared too. For Daney the Cinephile, a thread runs from one world to the other, or from the world to the world-in-the-world.
Claes: The recent editions of Daney’s texts have also contributed to our theoretical exploration. With him, we indeed find the emphasis on a cinema that tries to depict a contemporary reality. It’s important to find forms to reflect upon this world. That’s also your direct responsibility as a filmmaker. But this world is extremely boarded up. It’s hard to really look at this world and its objects, and to take your time doing that. We are constantly being overwhelmed by other images. In an interview, Anne Teresa [De Keersmaeker] talked about a related idea: “The only thing a contemporary artwork can do, is to formulate a desire for a different state of affairs in the world.” Maybe that’s also what cinema, to me, has to do from a philosophical standpoint: to make the current state of affairs less evident.
That’s also what French philosopher Jacques Rancière stresses in his book The Emancipated Spectator, in which he writes about how images can help to create a new landscape of the possible: “The images of art do not supply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible.”
Claes: Grands travaux might be considered a tentative cartography of the vocational school Anneessens-Funck. We mapped the various spaces of a place where the fragments of a disintegrated city converge. Just like with Because We Are Visual and Rain, constructing Grands travaux was closely related to a tension between inside and outside, between private and public space, between darkness and light... Essentially, Grands travaux is about how we might create new spaces in film. It’s a flowing geography, a movement through the polymorphous spaces inhabited by the boys.
Daney also thought of film in terms of a landscape. He linked his cinephilia to the postcards he sent on his travels all over the world. The images on these cards are by definition well-known, but Daney’s own experiences and his own point of view caused him to give them an entirely different interpretation. To a certain extent, he wallowed in exoticism, but he always connected this to his home, i.e. cinema. Visual culture continuously has to relate itself to dominant, well-known images.
Rochette: It’s important to continue looking at things around us we may not see any longer because we have looked at them too much. And because we are fed up with looking at them.
Claes: That’s why I’m so struck by the fact that Nicolas Philibert’s films are produced by a company called Les films d’ici [Films from here]. Even though you could say there’s a false romanticism in that too. It was important to us, at least for Grands travaux, to film here in Brussels, in a reality we know. Film is always an investment in reality, they never get separated. You also add a piece of reality. The Dardenne brothers, for example, have made the region of Seraing into a cinematic space. They can really create spaces. In their films, tables, chairs and kitchens do exist.
As a young filmmaker, you can’t resign to Costa’s statement that it’s no longer possible to film a kitchen.
Rochette: Costa has also pointed out that working on a film is what matters most about making a film, and not so much filming a pressing current topic. It’s a real challenge to make a film in a place that doesn’t already have an issue attached to it. I would love to be able to make a film about someone who travels to work, without imposing a certain topicality on that person, but rather make him or her part of our documentary stance. I think that’s the hardest thing to do.
Claes: We also want to make contemporary films. On the one hand, a lot of films that deal with our current world remain locked within themselves, as if they don’t relate back to reality. On the other hand, as a filmmaker you wonder if you’re condemned to work along the lines of Pedro Costa or Wang Bing, even if what they do is brilliant and virtuosic. I think that is something many filmmakers struggle with. To us, they may be the most important contemporary filmmakers, but I don’t know the world and the time of their films, nor do I belong to them. Of course, they film places that do exist in our times, but precisely the fact that they are in decay, gives them a materialistic quality that seems to be lacking over here. Filming a smooth surface requires a different approach than filming cracked walls.
Daney might have stressed that cinema is inherently contemporary, but in the years just before his death [in 1992] he also realized that an aura of nostalgic romance had become attached to his cinephilia. In his view, television had had a pernicious influence. Today, filmmakers must also take into account the Internet and a plethora of small screens.
Claes: That’s also why we’re so attracted to Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012). This too is the world we live in today, and it matters too. I think the fascination for our current world and its forms was the starting point for Because We Are Visual. But even then, there’s always this aspect of an exploration: you want to get acquainted with something you’re not familiar with yet, and film seems an appropriate means to that end. Though it seems as if films about today’s youth always end up in a carnival-like orgy, like Spring Breakers or The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013). It simply seems impossible to create a cinematic space with a middle-class girl who is a bit at odds with school and with her boyfriend.
Films that tackle our present age usually deliver a continuous barrage of moral lessons, something that is absent from Spring Breakers, intriguingly enough. It also fascinates me that some musicians, like Kanye West for example, cope with our times with such great ease. They process it very directly. Yet their work only offers a little friction and hardly disrupts anything.
Spring Breakers has a totally different tone than the heavy-handedness we often see in cinematic reflections about ‘our time’.
Claes: Michael Haneke is a contemporary filmmaker who determinedly tries to root his work in this world. But sometimes I’m not sure what to think of his films. I really like Code Unknown [Code inconnu. Récit incomplet de divers voyages] (2000), even though its content, the message let’s say, weighs heavily on that film. Haneke always ties a moral lesson to his films. They deal with topics such as Urban Life, Voyeurism... It’s difficult anyway to tell simple stories set in this day and age while not ceding to the illustration of ideas. If you look at Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012), you realize that few films manage to tell an ordinary, sincere love story about elderly people without attaching some kind of message.
The Dardenne brothers also seem to be spurred on by ethical concerns. Even though their films have a great naivety too. Nevertheless, their films are always driven by a morality, with a kind of Catholic guilt at its core, which asks how we engage with the Other today. This remark may be a bit exaggerated, but some of their films almost become biblical parables. There’s always a kind of quest.
Despite the attention critics and the audience usually have for the moral aspect of their narratives, form is also crucial to the Dardenne brothers.
Claes: If you look at their work, the colour of a wall for example really matters. That is of course important for every film, but there are so few films in which these concrete elements play an essential role. The way the Dardenne brothers arrange their films, gives viewers the feeling that the green walls in The Son [Le fils] (2002) really matter.
Or the red-brick façade in their Two Days, One Night [Deux jours, une nuit] (2014), in front of which the character of Marion Cotillard talks with a colleague [played by Christelle Cornil].
Claes: Yes, or the dark blue of the night shop in that film. To me, this has a lot to do with how you relate to reality, with what you consider important in that reality, and how it’s organized. At one point in Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard’s character enters a night shop which has a stack of blue crates in the back. When a colleague of hers who moonlights in this shop comes along with orange carrots and green foliage, those carrots lie there against the blue background like Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus [La botte d’asperges] (1880). A certain presence shines through this form. It really exists on the screen, as Costa would say. And that’s very beautiful.
Brussels, April 2016
This interview was originally a publication for the Beurschouwburg, issued on the premiere of Grands travaux. The film premiered on May 24, 2016, at Kunstenfestivaldesarts.
On the 17th of January DocPoppies will be screening our film Grands travaux in several Flemish cities and Brussels. Cinéma Aventure (Brussels), Sphinx Cinema (Ghent), Cinema ZED (Leuven) a.o. will keep the film in rotation after the 17th of January. You can find more information about the Belgian release here or on the website of Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes.