Country Focus: Belgium
The other Belgian cinema
10/05/2010 - Flemish cinema has for some time been laying claim to its position as the other Belgian cinema, and the crop of films at Cannes 2009 reinforced this assertion. With The Misfortunates [trailer, film focus], selected in the Directors’ Fortnight, Felix Van Groeningen cleverly kept up the buzz by proudly cycling nude on the Croisette, accompanied by his actors. As if to live up to the Belgian reputation for irreverence, which has stuck with the “flat country” since Man Bites Dog: It Happened In Your Neighbourhood. Of course, the film didn’t need this friendly push, as its tone, setting and characters seem designed to meet the specificities of Belgian film: a double act of surrealism and socialism tripled with an alcoholism that is more than just social drinking. But the Cannes crop also revealed a less outlandish and more contemplative side to Flemish production, with Lost Persons Area [trailer] and Altiplano [trailer], which were both selected in Critics’ Week.
Top of the box office
With The Misfortunates [trailer, film focus] and Altiplano [trailer], Flemish cinema gave birth to two festival giants, which are still doing the rounds one year later. Moreover, a few months ago, Le Monde ran a headline article about “the rediscovered pride in Belgian Flemish cinema”. This pride also stems from Flemish audiences’ extraordinary declaration of love for their cinema.
In 2008, Erik Van Looy took the Belgian box office by storm with his thriller Loft [trailer], which attracted no fewer than 1,195,000 viewers, marking a record for all categories. We already knew that Flemish audiences loved their films, as the recent success of The Alzheimer Case [trailer], Storm Force 10 and Ben X [trailer, film focus] confirmed. However, the scale of the Loft [trailer] phenomenon took everyone by surprise, especially as the film was barely distributed in Wallonia!
And against all predictions, the year 2009 almost equalled 2008’s record figures, and could perhaps even have topped them if it hadn’t been for the extreme weather conditions at the end of the year. This is all the more significant as 2008 didn’t have a heavyweight title like Loft [trailer] to boost its results. The Misfortunates [trailer, film focus] was therefore the surprise hit, drawing 450,000 viewers, followed by The K File (sequel to The Alzheimer Case [trailer], released at the very end of the year), with 408,000 admissions. Flemish film thus represented 10% of the market share in Belgium, and even more impressively, it accounted for 15-20% on the Flemish market, which is a very good score on a European level.
A bit of diversity…
These excellent results can be explained by the number of films that won over the masses. These admissions shared out across numerous productions illustrate the diversity of Flemish cinema today. Children’s films occupy a significant place, mainly “sagas” produced by Studio 100 (this year The Secret of Mega Mindy, 185,000 admissions; Plop en de Kabouterbaby, 100,000; Anubis en de Wraak Van Arghus, 66,000). There again, only Dutch-speaking audiences are concerned, and young Flemish viewers flock in droves every school holiday to see these mainstream titles. The year 2009 also showcased the talent of young auteurs like Geoffrey Enthoven (Over the Hill Band [trailer]), Pieter Van Hees (Dirty Mind [trailer]) and Dorothée Van den Berghe (My Queen Karo); and celebrated the return of box office hero, Stijn Coninckx, who tried his hand at a French-language film with Sister Smile.
Flemish cinema is also enriched by the numerous co-productions in which it gets involved, first and foremost with its “natural” Francophone partner. The year 2009 saw the emergence of numerous co-productions with the southern part of the country, including the quirky A Town Called Panic [trailer, film focus] (presented at Cannes), the astronomically expensive Mr Nobody [trailer, film focus], the poignant film The Day God Went Away [trailer], and the unusual The Barons [trailer, film focus], which was a big hit at the Belgian Francophone box office. This boom in co-productions is fostered by the partnership set up between the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) and the Belgian French-speaking Community Film and Audiovisual Centre, and the expansion of the regional fund Wallimage to include Brussels (with the investment fund Wallimage/Bruxellimage), now open to Brussels Flemish productions.
Follow that star
This year, the selection of Gust Van den Berghe’s Little Baby Jesus of Flanders in the Directors’ Fortnight shouldn’t go unnoticed, and the film is a logical successor to The Misfortunates. Little Baby Jesus is adapted from a stage play that is well-known in Flanders and dates from 1924. The film takes the form of a Christmas tale: three beggars decide to sing Christmas carols to glean the little money they need for drinking and eating. During their wanderings, they get lost in the forest, where they relive the nativity… Gust Van den Berghe has seized this traditional material and chosen to rework it in a radical way, in particular by giving most of the roles to actors with Down’s syndrome. It should also be noted that the film, shot in black and white, is in fact the young director’s final-year student project. We can already feel his cult status rising…
Quick interview with Tomas Leyers (Minds Meet), producer of Little Baby Jesus of Flanders and Lost Persons Area.
“The selection of Lost Persons Area [trailer] helped put the film in the international spotlight, and enabled me to meet many directors and producers. This new selection surprises me even more perhaps, and convinces me I’m making the right editorial choices as a producer. Discovering Little Baby [trailer] at the project stage was a shock for me, an aesthetic shock I wanted to share with audiences; that’s what motivates my work as a producer. I get the impression that Flemish creators today share a sort of artistic stubbornness. Belgium is a surrealist country, which challenges our common sense every day. This creates an incredible creative environment. We are lucky to be able to experiment freely, explore our cultural background without inhibitions, without being burdened by the weight of tradition. Following on from our choreographers, our visual artists and our theatre directors, our film directors are daring and innovative. It's like they study the Old Flemish School to create some New Flanders Cool.”
58.96% Flemish inhabitants, and 40.36% French-speaking inhabitants
Number of screens: 491
Domestic films’ market share: 10% (Flemish movies, 15 to 20% in Flanders)
Number of films produced: 39 including 30 co-productions (including French-speaking movies)
Box office 2009
1. The Misfortunates [trailer, film focus], Felix Van Groeningen, 450,300 admissions
2. Dossier K [trailer], Jan Verheyen, 408,176 admissions
3. Loft [trailer], Erik Van Looy, 250.000 admissions (released in 2008). Total admissions 2008-2009: 1,194,434
4. The Secret of Mega Mindy, Matthias Temmermans, 184,335 admissions
5. S&M Judge, Erik Lamens, 120,105 admissions
6. Luke and Lucy & The Texas Rangers, Wim Bien and Mark Mertens, 102,630 admissions