In the week the Cannes line-up was announced, Emilie Verhamme still couldn't quite believe that her short film Cockaigne had been selected for the official competition. She was also a little embarrassed, since she is only in her second year at Sint-Lukas film school in Brussels. 'I don't want people to think: "What a cocky person! In your second year, you send your movie to Cannes!" I just sent it to a lot of festivals and then totally forgot about it. But why not try?'

Text | Ian Mundell          Portrait | Bart Dewaele

Emilie Verhamme (c) Bart DewaeleHer initial idea for the film involved immigrants arriving at a sea port, but the people she met while researching the project were mostly from the Ukraine, where connections with Europe are more naturally over land. So she listened to their experiences and thought again.

'They told me so many stories you could fill a book, or make a feature film,' Verhamme recalls. 'But they were funny stories. They were laughing about it.' This fitted with the tone she wanted for the film. 'I didn't want to tell a heavy story that was too dramatic. I wanted to keep it light.'

She wove the anecdotes together into the story of a father and his two sons, travelling from the Ukraine to Belgium in the back of a van full of coffins. Once in Brussels they are welcomed by their compatriots, but they are also expected to pay for the hospitality. Similarly, when they find work they are abused and exploited by other newcomers. Naturally, they fight back.

When researching the film, Verhamme was intrigued to hear about this lack of solidarity between recent immigrants. 'It's all about surviving, and if you have to hurt other people then you do it,' she says. 'They don't want to help other people who are in the same situation, and I find that weird.'

Having settled on a Ukrainian story, she needed to find Ukrainian actors. 'In the beginning they were pretty reticent, because they were scared I would show Ukrainian people in a bad light,' she recalls. Then she was put in touch with a church serving the Ukrainian community, and invited along to present her idea.

'If I do something, I have to do it well, and particularly with a theme like this, which is so sensitive.'

'During the service I was looking at people and thinking which ones would be good for the story,' she says. People were still reluctant, but they agreed to help. 'They had so much respect for their priest that, in the beginning, I guess they did it for him.'
Two of her actors – Oleg and Stas Farchteyn – are father and son in real life, while the role of the second son was taken by Oleg Danilov, a fellow student from Sint-Lukas. Verhamme spent a long time preparing with them. 'I saw them for 10 weeks in a row, just to talk with them. If I'd just brought them onto the set then they would never have said anything, they were so shy.'

Dardenne brothers
Verhamme concedes that this was a lot of preparation for a first short film. 'If I do something, I have to do it well,' she says, 'and particularly with a theme like this, which is so sensitive.' She was also conscious that immigration was a well-worn subject. 'So, it had to be good and it had to be something that stood out.'

The shoot, when it came, was so frantic that she had no time to think of anything but the story. 'I have my idols and directors I respect, but I didn't use any references for this movie,' she says. Even so, the close, hand-held camerawork has made some people think of the Dardenne brothers. 'It wasn't a style that I wanted to reproduce,' she says, 'but I'm happy with the comparison.'

After Cannes, she has another short film to make to secure her bachelor degree. This will be about a brother and sister in their mid-teens who visit the house where they grew up. Invited in by the new owner, they end up staying for a few days. 'I started from the concept of boundaries within relationships and within property,' Verhamme explains. 'If my property stops here, then yours starts there. So the story is all about pushing this a little bit, and then taking it back. It's about subtle manipulations.' (i)

Published on Thursday 10 May 2012

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