While children only appear on the periphery of Fien Troch's previous features, Someone Else's Happiness and Unspoken, they play an essential narrative role in each film. 'The children were mirrors for my main characters, or they represented the still clean, naive world that the adults had lost,' she explains. 'All of my stories became the stories they are because of the involvement of children. So I decided, if these children are so important, why don't I try to make a film in which they are the main characters?' The result is Kid (pictured still on the right). Set in rural Flanders, it tells the story of a seven-year-old boy struggling to replace the lost love of his mother.
Text Ian Mundell
The story Troch chose this time explores the way in which children deal with emotional trauma. 'I wanted to convey how children are still flexible in the way they get bad news, that they can survive it just because they are kids, they can play and so on, and how long it is before that play doesn't work any more.'
The children in Kid are central to the drama and also determine what we see on screen. 'They are always in the room or involved in the situation. You never get a private moment with the adults,' Troch explains. 'You don't get any information that the children don't get. That creates an interesting tension because, of course, as an adult you understand some things better than the children or concentrate on other things.'
Limiting what the viewer knows about a situation is one of the hallmarks of Troch's approach to storytelling. 'I like to avoid being so obvious in what I show, or to restrict what I give away. This was ideal, because I could say: the kids only understand that part of the story so you only get that part of the story.'
As a setting, she chose the Kempen region in the north east of Belgium. 'My mother is from there, and part of my family is still there,' she says. 'I wanted to shoot there because I wanted to have that countryside and a farm.'
She looked locally for her young actors, partly to minimise the daily travelling to the set, partly to make the local accent a feature. 'The casting took me a while,' Troch recalls. 'I kept meeting the few children that I liked, and then we would meet for the clothes, for the hair, then talking with the parents.' This also helped her develop the scenario. 'That was an inspiration. Just observing them, to see how they dressed themselves, how they treated their clothes. I tried to use these little things.'
In the end she cast Bent Simons as Kid and Maarten Meeuwsen as his slightly older brother Billy. Rehearsal was minimal, more a matter of explaining to the boys what was going to happen on set. 'I was lucky to have very intelligent kids,' Troch says. 'They immediately understood what I was saying, and that was a big step forward.''
Even so she had some sleepless nights worrying that they might lose interest or start to resent spending their school holiday shut up with a film crew. 'But after a week I was reassured. I thought: these are actually two adults in small bodies. They were really cool and really calm.'
Their emotional intelligence took her by surprise. 'At the beginning I treated them like kids, saying: you're really scared and you are standing there... But at the end I could say: you remember what we talked about when you were scared? You feel like that, but you don't want to show it. It was like talking to adults, and they got the point and did what I asked. I guess kids are much more intelligent than we think, but I was also very lucky.'
Having cast local children, Troch decided to cast local non-professionals in most of the other roles. 'I thought, if I start putting professional actors in here this place won't be the same anymore. It will become like a studio.'
Most of these roles were for women between 40 and 60 years of age, which she thought would be difficult to fill, but people were keen to take part. The style of the film also lent itself to working with non-professionals. 'The way I tell the story is very calm and there is not much dialogue, so that was perfect. People don't have to show a new emotion in every scene.'
Simply showing the way people carry out simple tasks can be very telling, and Troch was keen to explore the power of these 'non-moments' in the film. 'In the way someone dresses a child, for example, you can tell that she's not their mother.'
The one part not cast locally was that of the boys' actual mother. 'One of the inspirations for the story was a picture of a mother and son sitting on a couch, and the mother had such a sad, special face. I thought I would never find that face.' But then she saw it among the dancers in the Peeping Tom company, based in Brussels. This was Gabriela Carrizo, co-founder of the company and one of its main choreographers.
The only problem was that Carizzo, originally from Argentina, spoke French rather than Dutch. 'A lot of people said to me: if that's the woman you really want to work with, then she just has to learn Dutch.' Even this became an asset. 'The mother stands alone in the story,' Troch explains. 'She's almost a mythical figure or a metaphor for something, so it was OK if her language was a bit weird. She doesn't really communicate with people, so it fell into place.'
Carizzo's background showed in subtle ways. 'She doesn't dance, but you can see that she is physically very aware of what she does,' Troch says. 'She is very physical in the film. She doesn't do that much, but she is there, and just being there she has a strong presence.'
In keeping with its subject matter, Kid has a different visual style from Troch's previous films, in particular moving away from the claustrophobic feeling of Unspoken. 'I really wanted it to be much more open and much brighter, with much more breathing space.'
At the same time she wanted to avoid creating seductively attractive images of the countryside. 'It wasn't that they had to be ugly, but there had to be a kind of roughness or hardness, or a non-aesthetic quality,' she says. 'If anyone from the crew said something looked beautiful we would change it!'
Among many inspirations for this approach, one touchstone was Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul. 'He also had shots which felt very unheimlich [unsettling] or hard in a way. But then Fassbinder never makes it easy for you.'
Looking back over her first three features, Troch feels that Kid marks the completion of a trilogy. 'There's a recurrent theme about difficulties in communicating and showing emotions, and maybe I'm done with that, although I still can't imagine making a film where everyone just talks as if it is normal,' she says. 'I'm already writing something new, and children are involved, but I feel that I have finished something with these three films.'
Passing it on
Fien Troch began teaching at Sint Lukas film school in Brussels simply to earn some money between projects. Initially she was a little resentful that it was distracting from her own work, but that soon changed. 'Even if it's really hard work, or it takes up two or three weeks constantly doing exercises with students, I know that afterwards I'll have so much more inspiration and be so much happier to be writing than if I just sat there everyday trying to write.'
The creative energy of the students is contagious. 'It's the same as seeing a good film, hearing a song or reading a good book,' she says. 'It challenges me to make something beautiful myself.'
Working with young filmmakers has also taught her to question her own creative choices. 'If I ask a student to tell me why they decided to do something I should be able to do the same, and that has been really hard.'
It is not all positive, though, and she's been taken aback by the way some students resist difficult films. 'Sometimes I'm surprised that they don't have the courage to look at films that aren't that easy to sit through, and I'm not talking about my own films -- I don't even know if that's difficult for them.'
The surprise is when they balk at watching something like a Robert Bresson film, or just scan key scenes on their computers. 'Maybe it's another generation and another way of watching films,' she says. 'I don't want to be too old fashioned, but when they say things are hard or slow, I tell them: nobody ever died from watching a difficult film.'