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Samuel Tilman • Director

"The Benefit of the Doubt is a psychological thriller about suspicion and doubt"


- We met Belgian director Samuel Tilman as he presented his first feature film, The Benefit of the Doubt, at the Namur International French Language Film Festival

Samuel Tilman  • Director
(© FIFF)

The Benefit of the Doubt [+see also:
film review
interview: Samuel Tilman
film profile
 tells the story of David, a teacher and father who returns from a holiday with friends to find he is suspected of having committed a murder while he was away. As the film progresses, we see how doubts over David’s innocence spread among those closest to him. This ensemble psychological thriller was presented at the Namur International French Language Film Festival and is Samuel Tilman’s first full-length feature. His second short film, Sleepless Night, was awarded the Magritte for Best Short Film, while his epic docu-fiction The Last Stand [+see also:
interview: Samuel Tilman
film profile
 was broadcast on French TV channel France 2 last year.

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Cineuropa: Where did the idea for the film come from? 
Samuel Tilman:
 The idea came out of a relatively unexciting, everyday experience. I was jogging down a quiet road and I ran past a guy at a bus stop who looked bizarrely similar to me. I thought to myself that if he were to commit a crime, then I could be mistaken for the criminal, and I started to get my alibis ready, just in case! With film-writing, it often starts with a spark which then ignites the desire to tell a story. These sparks are often anecdotal, but they also have strong themes behind them. In this instance, I wanted to make a film revolving around suspicion and doubt, which ultimately turns into a psychological thriller. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of suspicion and how we look at other people. I wanted to tell the story of how, when someone is suspected of murder, the way in which that person is looked upon by those close to them begins to change, and how the observed person reacts to this. Everything that person does is interpreted as proof of either their guilt or their innocence. Each and every one of us is made up of many different parts, and we all have a dark side within us. David has become a suspect, and the investigation that follows will ultimately lead to the unveiling of his own dark side, which actually has nothing to do with the murder. But if he is capable of lying about something like that, surely he could also be lying about the murder? 

Small news items also fascinate me. I wrote this film on the premise that where there is no objective evidence for judging someone, there are always moral factors that will influence whether or not we can empathise and admit to ourselves that we, too, might have lied in this situation and that this could have happened to us… Over the course of the film, the audience sees David as either guilty or not guilty, depending on the empathy they have for the main character at any given time. And ultimately, it’s also a film about the benefit of the doubt.

Is it still a struggle to make a genre film in Belgium in today’s climate? 
The Belgian film landscape is becoming increasingly varied. I’ve always been drawn to comedy. In fact, my first short film was actually a kind of dramedy, but I didn’t feel ready to make a comedy for my first full-length film. I felt more at ease with the thriller genre, but it’s a psychological thriller through and through, driven by its characters. It’s definitely more European in style than Asian! It’s also quite an under-exploited genre in French-language films, in Belgium especially.

This is an ensemble film, so was the casting for it especially challenging? 
Yes, I wanted the cast to be 100% Belgian because we have incredible actors in their thirties and forties in Belgium. I didn’t want a hybrid French-Belgian cast; it would have diluted the identity of the film. I wanted to talk about my world, and my world is here in Belgium. Fabrizio Rongione and I have known each other since the outset of our film debuts, and we totally trust one another. I needed someone who would throw himself fully into this character because what the audience makes of him depends on what they see of him. Fabrizio has this ability to move seamlessly between high and light drama. I also wanted to create couples. Filming a group of actors was the biggest challenge for me because I had no experience of it, and I needed to work hard to create complicity within the group and to then successfully convey this.

The film is Belgian in terms of its cast and most of its backdrops, but a whole section of the movie was shot in the mountains… 
As idyllic as they are, it’s the menacing side of mountain landscapes that I like. Hence the extreme wide shots where David seems oppressed by his environment, and the extreme close-ups that allow the viewer a certain intimacy with the lead character. I wanted to develop this alternation of extreme close-ups with extreme wide shots. It’s something that I already explored in my short film Sleepless Night and that I was able to work on again here, this time integrating it into the dynamics of a thriller.

(Translated from French by Michelle Mathery)

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