Last year, Gust Van Den Berghe’s debut feature Little Baby Jesus Of Flandr was shown to a huge ovation in Cannes. Now, a year later, he has completed a new feature film, Blue Bird, which has already been snapped up by leading international sales agent The Coproduction Office and is bound to enjoy a very long festival life. The prodigiously talented Van Den Berghe, who is now busily plotting a third feature, is only 25 years old.

Text Geoffrey Macnab Portrait Bart Dewaele

Gust Van Den BergheCannes 2010. At the screening of Little Baby Jesus Of Flandr in the Quinzaine, the audience was wildly enthusiastic. The film’s young director sat there, gratified but startled.

‘It was pretty extreme… but good extreme!’ he says of his experiences at his first major festival. ‘The people at the Quinzaine are wonderful people. They gave birth to me as an artist. It’s a very important moment in my life. I’ll never forget and I’ll never be able to have that same pure experience as at that particular screening where, for the first time, I had a contact with an audience.’

For all the excitement, Van Den Berghe didn’t let the Cannes fervour go to his head. Within weeks of Cannes, he was already hatching a new project. In his spare time, Van Den Berghe likes to read old Flemish plays. One writer he had stumbled on was Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the Nobel Prize back in 1911 but hardly a household name today. In particular, he was fascinated by Ghent-born Maeterlinck’s symbolist play for children, ‘Blue Bird’, about a little girl and boy on a quest for happiness.Van Den Berghe was very curious about the way that Maeterlinck attributed a ‘soul’ to objects and to animals. The writing seemed very dated but, at the same time, it had an innocence and a lyricism about it that he found enrapturing. ‘At the bottom line, you have these two children who are looking for a bird and, for me, this was enough.’

Mythical bird

As a young filmmaker strongly influenced by painting, it had always been his intention to make a ‘triptych’ – a series of three films – and Blue Bird was perfect for the middle segment. He decided to shoot in Africa.

Van Den Berghe’s version of Blue Bird is about children growing up without realizing it. As they search for the mythical bird, they are learning important questions about the way the adult world works. Not many young Belgian filmmakers would have the ambition or the utopianism to want to make a low budget feature in widescreen in a country that they had never visited before and where they knew no-one.

Why Togo? ‘It could have been Russia… or Belgium. I could have shot this movie anywhere,’ the director responds. ‘A child growing up is something that happens everywhere on earth. ’Last August, seemingly almost on a whim, Van Den Berghe took the plane to Togo. What appealed about the Tamberma land in the north of the country is that it has never been colonized. The tribes there still adhere to an ancient way of life. ‘Somebody tipped me off about this region. They told me it was very special.'

The director spent a month just living in Tamberma. Then, he returned in late November with a small camera crew. In order to put together his cast, he staged a few plays in the fields. ‘From these plays, I could see which kids had a certain intelligence toward directing and following orders,’ Van Den Berghe recalls. By early December, the filmmakers were ready to shoot.

From the outset, Van Den Berghe was determined not to rehash old clichés about African war, poverty or folklore. At the same time, he was aware of his position as a young white filmmaker in a remote African community.

‘If you are in Africa and you are white, it means certain things… it makes certain things very easy and certain things very difficult,’ the director reflects. He points out that there are stereotypes on both sides. Just as the whites have their preconceptions about black Africans, the Africans see the whites as ‘rich, with money to spend.’ The filmmakers didn’t pay the kids in the cast directly but provided them with practical gifts and underwrote their school fees.

Soul

In one scene, we hear a man complaining that the carpenter has cut down the trees and taken them away without making recompense to the gods of the woods. Warriors wait for the children, ready to punish them for the carpenter’s misdeeds. This sequence is taken from Maeterlinck’s play but it also chimed with the culture of the Togolese. When the director asked his actors to portray ‘the soul of the woods’, they took the advice sincerely. ‘It would be very difficult to tell this to someone in Belgium – become a soul of a tree!

The kids, meanwhile, relished working with the filmmakers. ‘They had a great time. They saw things that nobody in their village ever saw – they saw trucks, they saw the sea, which is 600 km down.’ These children had never come across a movie camera before and were fascinated by the way Van Den Berghe and his team put together their story in images. One key instruction he gave them was not to look into the lens when the camera was shooting.

Speak to most young European filmmakers and they will tell you of the struggles and frustrations that have faced them over many years as they have striven to finance and shoot their movies. Why was it so quick and straightforward for Van Den Berghe?

The young director explains that he won a €60,000 VAF Wildcard with Little Baby Jesus of Flandr, his graduation movie, and that he used this toward Blue Bird. ‘I wanted to make this fast because I didn’t want to work three years on this movie,’ Van Den Berghe declares.

Innocence

Whatever the circumstances in which it was shot, Blue Bird is a film on a very big canvas. Blue tinted, full of lovingly composed landscapes of forests and dusty plains, and with subtle sound and music - rustling grass, bells chiming - it rekindles memories of the work of the Russian master, Andrei Tarkovsky. The director talks of his determination to make ‘a cinematic experience… it’s important that people can go and see films in theatres.

’Why the blue? Van Den Berghe points out that blue was the only colour he didn’t see on location in Togo. ‘And the beautiful thing with blue is that you don’t know if it is day or night. You don’t know whether you are dreaming or awake. It is the colour of the unconscious and of the symbolist movement. It is a colour often related to childhood by painters and writers. It’s a colour linked to innocence.'

Producer Tomas Leyers, of Brussels-based Minds Meet, had worked with Van Den Berghe on Little Baby Jesus of Flandr which he very successfully self-released in Belgium. He was again on board for Blue Bird, which he had read shortly after Cannes and immediately committed to. ‘The good thing about Tomas is that he is a dreamer, albeit a realistic one. That’s a very noble thing to be in this profession.’

Van Den Berghe, who grew up in Bruges, comes from artistic family. His mother is a writer and teacher. His father was ‘an old bartender’. ‘He knows the art of conversation. He is a good listener. While my mum talks, my dad listens. I always say that my mum taught me how to fly and my dad taught me how to land. ’As an 18-year-old, Van Den Berghe was more involved in music and dance than in film. Film, he guessed, could be a way to bring his interests together. After a difficult first six months at film school, where he chafed against the rules and prescriptive style of teaching, he fell head over heels in love with movies. He cites titles like Godard’s A bout de souffle and the works of ‘visionaries’ like Pasolini and Tarkovsky as important inspirations.

He first had the idea for a series of movies about birth, the road and death when he was at the RITS film academy. A few years later and the cycle is already two thirds complete. Now, he has to make the third film in his loosely styled trilogy. ‘I don’t know the story yet but the first one (Little Baby Jesus) is about permanent innocence. This one (Blue Bird) is more about the road and losing that innocence… and for the third film I am working on guilt and how it is connected to knowledge and self-esteem...'

Van Den Berghe is a filmmaker in a hurry. ‘I am really inspired at the moment and I have the flow… I would like to shoot these three movies in the same period in order to maintain a similar identity.’

Published on Friday 29 July 2011

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