Hendrik Verthé and Kobe Van Steenberghe didn’t want to hang around after film school, so they set up their own company, a team productions. Four years on they’ve produced several shorts, including the multi-award winning Land of the Heroes, and they have just wrapped shooting on their first feature production, Image.

Text Ian Mundell | Portrait Bart Dewaele

vertThe pair met at the RITS film school in Brussels and worked together on several projects, including their respective graduation films. 'At the end Hendrik said: Let's start a company. And I said: That's a great idea,' recalls Van Steenberghe. 'It was a bit naive, maybe, but we didn't want to work all the time on little jobs and then only do something 10 years later. We decided just to do it ourselves, start the company and see how it goes.' A decisive step was buying a Red digital camera. 'We were able to shoot short films on very small budgets because we had our own equipment and did everything in-house, such as the editing and the grading,' says Van Steenberghe. 'That way you can see all the money on screen.' As a production team, they have complementary interests and skills. Verthé handles the financial side and acts as line producer when projects are under way, while Van Steenberghe takes on a role as creative producer, which covers everything from being script consultant to assistant director on set and handling colour grading in post-production.

Their first projects came from people they had known at film school. First there was Pim Algoed with the extravagantly titled short How to Enrich Yourself By Driving Women Into Emotional and Financial Bankruptcy, then a documentary by Bram Conjaerts, called The Circle, about the Large Hadron Collider, a massive nuclear physics experiment taking place underground on the Swiss-French border. Every summer for four years Conjaerts returned to the area to trace the 27km path of the experiment over ground, talking to people he met along the way about its goal of unravelling the secrets of the universe. The resulting film has just been completed and screened this spring at Hot Docs in Toronto and the Doxa Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver. Next came Sahim Omar Kalifa's Land of the Heroes, a darkly comic tale of three Iraqi kids playing at 'Saddam' while their mothers are busy cleaning weapons that the children have collected from near-by battlefields. Selected at more than 100 film festivals around the world it has gathered a score of awards, including Best Short in the Berlin Film Festival's Generation programme.

VAF Wildcards

kalifaAlgoed, Conjaerts and Kalifa are all past winners of VAF Wildcard awards for their student films. By taking them on, a team has been able to build a portfolio of short and medium-length films by talented young directors and to get an inside track on funding. Verthé sees an advantage in having young directors and producers working together. 'We are working at the same level, whereas if they go to a bigger producer, as a young director they are always just a beginner.' And when the films succeed, it shows that the young producers know what they are doing. 'After Land of the Heroes I think we proved that,' says Van Steenberghe. Wildcard awards are generally meant to support a short film, establishing a young director's professional credentials, but recent winners Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have bigger ambitions. They decided to make a feature, Image. 'That's a little bit what attracts us to them,' says Verthé. 'We had the same thing, that after school we said: We are just going to do it.'

The story concerns Eva, a Flemish television journalist who recruits a young guy of Moroccan origin, Lahbib, to act as her guide to inner city Brussels. The directors' enthusiasm not only convinced the producers, but it also attracted some big names to the cast. Laura Verlinden (Ben X, Loft) plays Eva, while Geert Van Rampelberg (The Broken Circle Breakdown), Wouter Hendrickx (The Misfortunates, Oxygen) and Gene Bervoets appear in supporting roles. Meanwhile Lahbib is played by Nabil Mallat, one of the stars of their VAF Wildcard winning short Brothers.

Despite the limited means, the directors set out to make a film that looks as polished as possible. 'They said: We don't have any money but we are not going to shoot it hand-held. We want to shoot it like a movie should be shot,' Van Steenberghe recalls. 'They wanted tracking shots and all the camera movements, which was a bit insane because of the way we had to shoot it, but the crew - and especially Robrecht Heyvaert, the cinematographer - pulled it off.' Now editing, the film should be ready early in 2014. 'You could pitch it as a festival film - it's directed by two Moroccan guys, it's their first film, it's set in the 'hood’ - but actually it's more of a commercial movie,' says Verthé. 'The production values are very high.' An additional vote of confidence in its commercial potential has come through the involvement of Flemish major Eyeworks, which lined up Tax Shelter funding for the project and will handle domestic distribution. 'The movie will have the best chance it could have,' says Van Steenberghe.

Work hard

baghdad.Looking forward, a team has recently completed a second short film with Kalifa, once more going to Iraq to shoot a story that combines kids and conflict. Baghdad Messi is about a football-mad 10-year-old whose future on the village team depends on his father's TV working during a Barcelona championship match. But getting a TV fixed in war-torn Iraq is no easy matter. By now the producers are used to the demands of shooting in Iraq. 'For a short film we have maybe 11 or 12 shooting days, where normally it would be five or six,' says Verthé. 'But you really have to relax. You learn that you can only shoot two scenes a day.' Now Kalifa is working on his first feature film. This began as an a team project, but the director wanted to work with scriptwriter Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem (Oxygen, Brasserie Romantique) and so it made more sense for Van Rijckeghem to produce as well. A team bears no grudge. 'It was the right decision,' says Van Steenberghe. 'We always think: What do we want to do, what do our directors want to do, and what is for the best.'

Meanwhile the company has a number of documentaries in the final stages of editing and post-production. There are two projects from Ruben Vermeersch, a medium-length documentary called The Applause Man, about 90s cult figure Antoon De Pauw and a documentary titled What About Eric, about a Congolese rapper who lives in the Flemish backwater town of Izegem. Then there is a documentary by Jason Boënne (another VAF Wildcard winner) who is following a trainee matador in Spain. 'The boy is giving his life for the sport, but it is something that is not popular any more,' says Verthé. 'So in a way he has chosen the wrong dream.' The next fiction project will be De Vijver (The Pond), a horror short directed by Jeroen Dumoulein and written by Michel Sabbe. This will shoot in January. But before then they are trying something different, taking on a season of Eyeworks’ popular tv crime drama Vermist (Missing Persons Unit). This involves coming full circle, since both of them started out as runners on the series, with Van Steenberghe going on to become a regular assistant director and writer. 'It's a little bit funny that in the first season we were the trainees, and now he's one of the directors and I'm the producer,' says Verthé. 'Now we can say to the trainees: You see, if you work hard you will get there!'

Corman of Arabia

landoftheheroesThe combination of working in Iraq with Sahim Omar Kalifa and stretching a VAF Wildcard budget as far as it would go to make Image has given a team an idea: Why not make low-budget feature films in the desert? Although shooting can be challenging, the results are spectacular. 'The light is beautiful, you have a lot of texture,' says Van Steenberghe. 'All the people, the faces, the buildings - everything is alive.' In addition, the films would immediately have an international dimension. The idea is to invest money from their own company rather than tap the subsidy system for this kind of projects. Budgets would be around €200,000 per film, with an emphasis on giving new directors and starting crew members a break rather than making movies below market rate. 'We would be saying to young directors: We want to shoot the movie with you, we can provide you with a very small budget, you have to write a screenplay that is really commercial... let's talk about it!' says Van Steenberghe. This is broadly modelled on the American approach that produced stylish genre films in the 1960s and 1970s and gave early breaks to directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. 'It's Roger Corman, but with good scripts!' says Verthé.

Published on Monday 3 June 2013

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