After shooting films in Mongolia and Peru, Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth have returned to Belgium for their latest feature, The Fifth Season. 'Neither of us would dare call any place ‘home’ but we have lived here in the Condroz for almost a decade,' says Woodworth. 'We loved the challenge of working in our backyard.'
Text Ian Mundell Portrait Bart Dewaele
The Condroz is a band of rolling agricultural land in the south of Belgium, bordering the hills and forests of the Ardennes. In this idyllic setting, Brosens and Woodworth (pictured right © Bart Dewaele) tell the tale of a community thrown into confusion when winter refuses to turn into spring. The crops fail, food becomes scarce and the bonds between neighbours start to break.
'The story of The Fifth Season could be told anywhere,' Brosens explains, 'but our backyard made most sense to us because we know the people, the light, the topography, the seasons, the customs, the old stone houses, the quarries, the farms, the daily rhythms et cetera. It's hauntingly beautiful and has a timeless quality.'
The bigger picture
A concern with the environment and the impact of modern industrial life on communities run through the couple's films. In Khadak (2006) members of a nomadic tribe in Mongolia are forced to work in vast opencast coal mines, while in Altiplano (2009) a community in the high Andes is challenged by pollution from silver mining.
The Fifth Season continues this line of thought, although it wasn't a progression that the directors planned. 'Each film was so completely absorbing that we never concerned ourselves with the bigger picture,' says Woodworth. 'It’s only after shooting Altiplano that we recognised our desire to transpose our thoughts to the place where we live.'
Now that The Fifth Season (pictured) is complete, the three films can be seen as a trilogy. 'They clearly share a similar visual language, a sense of urgency and a concern with the environment,' she explains. And in each case the themes are bigger than the places where the stories unfold. 'We pose questions,' Brosens says, 'questions that pertain to all of us. They are urgent. They are local and universal. They are omnipresent.'
While man is the aggressor in the first two films, nature has the upper hand in the third. 'The premise is that nature, by doing absolutely nothing, giving nothing, denying the earth fertility, sparks a rapid implosion of civil conduct within a community,' says Brosens. 'We are creating the hypothetical situation of ‘spring-not-coming’ in the dramaturgy by endowing nature with the power to deny man that which he considers so obviously his: grain, milk, pollen, flowers, plants, light, fruit, colours, smells – likewise denying him predictability, control, stability and profit.'
'This indefinable, intangible, invisible enemy called Nature provokes the dissolution of rational behaviour and an ugly face of man suddenly emerges,' Woodworth adds. 'As filmmakers we believe that nature contains the potential for revenge and that man’s arrogance and ignorance will set the premise for a breaking point at which, in effect, a sort of war could be declared.'
While Khadak and Altiplano were marked by bright colours, The Fifth Season is paler and has a more constrained palette. 'Winter in Belgium is by definition rather pale, and we like to honour the true colours of a place,' Brosens explains. 'Mongolia in winter is blindingly bright and the Andes in winter are bursting with colour. We simply stuck close to the reality here. The changes in the palette of The Fifth Season actually come out of the story itself: spring refuses to come and things start to disappear, even colours.'
Their cinematographer on this film, Hans Bruch Jr., is no stranger to extreme palettes, having shot the blue-tinged Blue Bird for Gust Van den Berghe, as well as the director's black-and-white Little Baby Jesus of Flandr. Other key members of the crew are art director Igor Gabriel, a regular partner of the Dardenne brothers, and Dutch sound engineer Pepijn Aben, who has worked on all three Brosens and Woodworth productions.
The film was shot in the village of Weillen, just two kilometres from where the directors live. 'It’s a great setting because it evokes the isolation of a village nestled somewhere deep in the Ardennes,' says Brosens. 'It’s a rural community surrounded by meadows and fields and overlooked by a big dark forest. Perfect for storytelling.'
Even though it was close to home, the directors still carried out the kind of ethnographic work that informed Khadak and Altiplano. 'We did just as much research here as we did in Mongolia and Peru,' says Woodworth. 'We had a Belgian university professor from Liège, Françoise Lempereur, helping us with certain historical and folkloric aspects. We combed through archives and museums. We talked with our neighbours who are farmers about their daily life and their anxieties. But we were not so bound to facts this time, because it is a hypothetical situation that takes place in the near future.'
In addition to local inspirations, the pair cite a broad range of influences for the film, from the music of Georges Gurdjieff, Johan Sebastian Bach and Nick Cave to the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Goran Djurovic and Michaël Borremans. Cinematic references include Czech New Wave masterpiece Marketa Lazarová and the films of Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky. 'And then there is this great quote from Werner Herzog,' recalls Brosens. '"What have we done to our landscapes? We have embarrassed our landscapes!"'
Shooting in Belgium also produced familiar hardships. 'It was bloody cold,' Woodworth recalls. 'We shot all four seasons in the dead of winter. The summer scenes posed a challenge. The actors were frozen to the bone in their shorts and t-shirts. And it started to snow hard during the summer barbecue scene, which caused a huge panic on set.'
'The human challenges were much larger than the technical ones, which came a bit as a surprise after shooting films at 5000 metres or at minus 38 degrees,' Brosens adds. 'But it all depends on the crew and how you interact with them.'
Sense of wonder
Their own working method has changed little over the three films. 'It simply works. It’s quite normal to us,' says Brosens. 'We make all decisions together,' Woodworth adds. 'Luckily we agree on almost everything and we don’t get tripped up by ego. If one of us comes up with a really bad idea the other one points it out, there’s a tense moment of silence and then we laugh. Then we move on. When something is working, when a scene is unfolding beautifully, it is also so obvious to both of us. It just goes unspoken.'
'We want viewers to experience the films not only as “story” but as something beyond the narrative lines, like music. Listening to music is subjective and very private. We would love our films to be experienced as if they were music'
Their previous films have performed well at festivals, with Khadak winning the Lion of the Future award at Venice and Altiplano appearing in the Critics' Week at Cannes. But it is the positive audience reaction that is particularly rewarding. 'And we are not just referring to cinephile audiences,' Brosens says. 'What perplexed us most were the reactions of many kids during the school tour of Altiplano. For some of them the film was such a revelation, they had no clue that cinema could actually offer something else than just entertainment.'
They want their films to produce a sense of wonder, and for audiences to bring their own interpretations to bear. 'What the films are really about depends very much on the viewer,' Woodworth says. 'We want viewers to experience the films not only as ‘story’ but as something beyond the narrative lines, like music. Listening to music is subjective and very private. We would love our films to be experienced as if they were music.'
The themes of Khadak, Altiplano and The Fifth Season (pictured) are too important to leave behind completely, but Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth plan to take a break with their next project. 'We are quite exhausted by the seriousness of the three films,' says Woodworth. 'That’s why it’s time to do something utterly different. So we have written a comedy called Kebab Royal.'
'It’s about the last king of the Belgians, lost in the Balkans,' Brosens explains, somewhat cryptically. 'Kebab Royal is politically incorrect and really outrageous. We have been working on it for two years now. Someone once said that "displacement is the essence of both poetry and comedy," and that’s just why Kebab Royal fits perfectly in our trajectory as filmmakers.'
Although it's a break from seriousness, the film still has something to say about the world. 'It’s a timely reflection on Europe, but done with a bit of wit, a bit of charm and a lot of silliness,' Woodworth says. 'It is light-hearted, but we have no illusions about it being easier to make than our first three films. Comedy is amazingly difficult. We actually prefer to call it a road movie.'
The couple are currently preparing the third draft of the script and they hope to shoot in 2013, for a significant release in 2014. 'After all, the grand finale of the film is set in Sarajevo,' says Brosens, 'and we all know what happened there 100 years ago.'