Les États généraux du film documentaire 2013 Doc History: Belgium

Doc History: Belgium


Belgian documentary, whether through contemporary or heritage films, is well represented each year in the programming of the États généraux du film documentaire. Nonetheless, it seemed important to us to return to the history of documentary in Belgium, a country which, from the beginnings of documentary, played an important role by the wealth and diversity of works it produced. This program was constructed from the four representative, indeed constitutive, tendencies in twentieth century Belgian documentary. This "Doc History: Belgium" is not organised strictly chronologically but stresses certain trends, some of which have played a role all along the history of Belgian film. Like in other European countries, avant-garde film had a strong influence on the beginnings of documentary. Then in the nineteen thirties, documentary moved towards social commitment; but also became an eyewitness and propaganda vehicle for the history of colonization, and also a means to analyze other artistic forms. Considered the founding father and pioneer of Belgian documentary, Henri Storck is an important figure in all the different tendencies which have marked Belgian film. Already an amateur of art as a young man, it was seeing Robert Flaherty's Moana that confirmed in his mind his destiny as a cineaste. He then became, with Charles Dekeukeleire, one of the major figures of avant-garde Belgian cinema. Accompanied by his friend Félix Labisse, he began very early to make films inspired by art. He then turned to social and committed documentary to make in the company of Joris Ivens Misère au Borinage. Thus Henri Storck traced some of the guidelines of Belgian documentary which were followed by many of his compatriots such as Edmond Bernard, Thierry Knauff, Olivier Smolders or still others. It is in part his work that provides us with much of the programming of "Doc History: Belgium", a necessarily incomplete selection given the wealth and diversity of this country's documentary films and which, unfortunately, overlooks some important films and directors. A first tendency characteristic of Belgian documentary from its origins explores an artistic form and a cinematographic language without neglecting a point of view on reality. We cannot overlook the films on the Congo and the colonial policies of Belgium. These films sometimes praise the benefits of colonization — paternalistic discourses which would be unacceptable today — testifying to the colonialist attitudes of the time. The most emblematic films of this tendency are those of André Cauvin and Gérard de Boe. Other films opt for a more ethnographic approach, a method which we also find in some films taking Belgian society as their subject of observation. Another very important tendency in this documentary history is social, committed, indeed militant, film. Here again, Henri Storck opened the way but the flame has been passed with much talent and persuasion to other cineastes: Paul Meyer, Frans Buyens or, in video for example, to the Dardenne brothers. We cannot forget the films on art, another major tendency in Belgian documentary, connected amongst others to world famous Belgian painters (Delvaux, Magritte or still others). Here we find again the films of Storck, Dekeukeleire but also Luc de Heusch whose work is of an immense diversity. Other artistic forms such as dance are also represented in this programme, and we will see in the work of Éric Pauwels some films that have already been screened at Lussas.

Kees Bakker

In praise of the Singular

Edmond Bernhard spoke, on the subject of his short and masterful career as a filmmaker, of a taste for discontinuity, a desire not to roll along predetermined tracks. And wasn't it Stig Dagerman who wrote, as if in echo, that a human life is not a performance but something that grows and strives to attain perfection. Olivier Smolders describes his cinematographic essay Death at Vignole as a solitary film. Thierry Knauff patiently directs a work which resonates like a musical composition and where rare images express our pain facing a damaged world. The singularity of Belgian cinema seems rooted in the filmmakers' liberty to practice their craft free from all restraint. For them, the challenge is to invent and experiment with images and sounds in conditions similar to those experienced by painters and poets, with their spaces and rhythms. The tradition of the film on art, or the artist's film, traces its source to that golden age. In Ostende during the first years of the twentieth century, Henri Storck rubbed shoulders with James Ensor and Permeke. Charles Dekeukeleire participated in the 7 Arts group (1922-29) which, under the influence of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Le Corbusier, created in Belgium a movement under the banner of Constructivism. Luc de Heusch participated, in the fifties, in the short-lived adventure of Cobra and filmed Christian Dotremont and Pierre Alechinsky in their workshops. Surrealism opened other doors to the cineastes' unconscious (René Magritte). Many inheritors of this state of mind have built their work in rupture, devoted their lives to a daily practice of cinema. Boris Lehman provides us with the most obvious example. Others find in teaching the material means necessary to continue their creative work in total independence (Éric Pauwels, Olivier Smolders in particular). Paradoxically, the absence of a production industry has certainly contributed to the development of this libertarian state of mind.

Cinema and Society

Up to the end of the sixties in Belgium, there was no institutional support for cinema. Filmmakers worked on commissions. This was the case of films made in the Congo over two decades by André Cauvin, Charles Dekeukeleire and Gérard de Boe. On that basis, how was it possible to reconcile the paternalist discourse of the colonisers with the filmmakers' points of view ? Seeing these films creates a sense of unease in today's spectator. In spite of their cinematic qualities, they appear to us as tools of propaganda whose imposed commentary leaves little place for the filmmaker's perspective and blinds one to the beauty of the images. In some of them nonetheless, we are direct witnesses of the discovery of the Other, the Africans and their culture. And the superiority of the White man, the colonialist, the missionary vacillates on contact with the unbound thought, the beauty of human bodies, the ritual gestures and dances. The confined space of Belgium and the stifling petit bourgeois spirit of its society opens up to wider horizons. We witness then the birth of an ethnographic cinema, keen to understand the history of the colonised, to decipher the signs of their culture, to translate their way of thinking. Luc de Heusch's film, Rwanda, tableaux d'une féodalité pastorale has retained all its pertinence and throws light on the future genocide.
Dekeukeleire considered cinema as a collective enterprise, springing from and returning to the entire society. The colonial empire and the wealth it procured for the Belgian bourgeoisie contrasted brutally with the poverty of the working class. Misère au Borinage, by Henri Storck, codirected in 1933 with Joris Ivens, was the founding film of social cinema in Belgium, memorable for the vigour with which the filmmakers expressed their indignation as the results of the thirties' depression in the Borinage mining fields. Two decades passed before another film of the same intensity appeared. Déjà s'envole la fleur maigre by Paul Meyer also communicated an intense denunciation of the conditions lived by Italian immigration in the Borinage region after the mining catastrophe of Marcinelle. The film remained long ignored and the filmmaker's career was broken amid the bitterness born of his contemporaries' indifference. This unrecognised masterpiece must be considered on a par with Storck's film as the clearest milestone in the history of social cinema in Belgium. Shortly after, in 1962, Frans Buyens reconstructed from archives a narrative of the important strike of 1960. Combattre pour nos droits is an engaged, generous film, whose militant commentary has renewed relevance today in its direct attack against the free-market economics of bankers. The Dardenne brothers drew on these images to express their point of view on the 1960 strike in a project inspired in particular by Armand Gatti's theatre, where revolutionary thinking became more universal through the use of metaphors related to the city and the river. They drew the conclusion that any insurrection was doomed to fail in Belgium. Their documentary experience persuaded them to move over to fiction, with a practice of rigorous screenwriting which persistently used actors to explore the even harsher social realities created by the disappearance of the working class and its traditions of solidarity.
With Symphonie paysanne, a long matured film, Henri Storck shot a celebration of the peasant world through the four seasons of the year. The shoot was carried out in several farms of the Flemish Brabant region over three years from 1942 to 1944. The timeless nature of the tableau, the lyricism in which it bathes, the faithful observation of each day's tasks did not spare the film heated arguments not so much about the filmmaker's intentions, but about the judiciousness of making such a film under Nazi occupation. This is not a good line of attack, but the film can suggest by its commentary a break with the commitment and liberty of the artist's previous work.
Edmond Bernhard claimed for himself a non-heritage. Nonetheless, in Belgian cinema, there are many inheritors of this golden age we have described in our introduction. For these people, filming is much more than a craft, it is a reason to live, a way to exercise one's free will.

Serge Meurant

The CNC Heritage department is collaborating this year again with the États généraux du film documentaire. This partnership with the documentary services at Bois d'Arcy is based on the projection of the films Joseph Plateau, théoricien de l'animation et Big Bill Blues.


Coordination : Presentation and debates by Kees Bakker and Serge Meurant, in the presence of Boris Lehman and Thierry Michel.


The CNC Heritage department is collaborating this year again with the États généraux du film documentaire. This partnership with the documentary services at Bois d'Arcy is based on the projection of the film Joseph Plateau, théoricien de l'animation et Big Bill Blues.