Brussels based producer-director Peter Krüger's decision to explore the limits of fiction and documentary took off in 2011 with his first feature- length documentary-fiction, the award-winning Antwerp Central. it was on the cultural, historical and symbolic life of Antwerp’s monumental railway station. This year's Berlinale Forum unveils a project the director has been working on since 2005: N - The Madness of Reason. Krüger describes it as his first cinematographic combination of documentary and fiction.

Interview | Peter Van Goethem

Peter KrügerWhen confronted with civil war, Borremans is shattered. What is the connection between an encyclopaedia and the war you filmed in the Ivory Coast?

Borremans’ view of the world is shaped by a typically Western way of looking at things which is closely bound up with the need to categorize. His obsessive attempts to classify and objectify, to create frameworks, names and definitions, reflect his desire to force reality into compartments. I would like to show – in opposition to this – how fluid and mysterious reality is, and to what extent our categories are mere constructions. The tree that stands in the Ivory Coast is the same as the one with its roots planted in Mali, but because we have drawn a boundary between them, we classify them differently. This film now aims to underline how an encyclopedic approach to the world can also affect political reality. As a human being, you are given a national identity: you are Ivorian, Malian, Burkinese or whatever. But in reality, people are mobile; they move, and after a while their assigned identity no longer corresponds with their actual existence. Identity therefore becomes an ideal construction that can have profoundly violent implications. If you belong to the wrong category, others can even claim the right to kill you. N - The Madness of Reason shows that the creation of identity is always based upon illusion. Reality is always open to change, escapes all categories and rarely corresponds to the words and names we use to describe it. It can be dangereous to forget that there are profound differences between words and the things they are used to designate. As an African intellectual states in the film: ‘The written word – the alphabet – these are in themselves means of exclusion.’

So classification is a source of conflict?

Absolutely. Entire populations have moved to the Ivory Coast, sent first by the colonial settlers and then by the President in order to work there, a migration which resulted in what was known as ‘the Ivory Coast miracle’. These so- called foreigners settled there, started families and began to view the Ivory Coast as their own country. This went well until the 1990s, when the economy lost its stability and President Konan Bédié launched the concept of ‘Ivorian-ness’. Everyone who was not considered to have verifiable origins in the Ivory Coast lost their right to vote and was in danger of losing what they had come to consider their country. It was no coincidence that a civil war soon broke out between the natives and the immigrants. Drawing boundaries and insisting on definition and classification are definitely not innocent activities when human lives are at stake. What happened in the Ivory Coast gives us a glaring example of the dangers of such objectifying way of thinking.

How do you present this in N?

It was important for me to find a way of visualizing how encyclopedic thought can lose its innocence. This is why I left for the Ivory Coast in 2009 to film the identification process. In order to make elections possible, the Ivorian government needed to identify the population and determine who was entitled to Ivorian identity. It was this process that I wanted to capture visually. In 2011, I went back to the Ivory Coast to film the violent upshot of this process. When President Gbagbo was deposed, we entered the country via Burkina Faso and were confronted with the terrible violence that broke out after the elections.

So you wanted to be present at the place where the violence occurred?

Yes, we wanted to be close to the place where violence was breaking out, but for me I was not interested in filming the actual violence. The film is all about the reflection such violence provokes. When we arrived in the western part of the Ivory Coast, the massacre of Douekoue had just occurred. The signs were immediately visible and there was a possibility of new outbreaks. As a filmmaker I was in the right place at the right time, but I did not film the situation for its value as news, but to capture a universal image of human suffering, and to question how such things occur and how we view them. When one of the characters starts to take photographs of corpses and counts them, a correspondence is set up with Borremans’s encyclopaedic outlook. The question being posed is whether or not this objective way of looking prevents us from being truly affected by pain and suffering.

Are the aesthetics of the film reconcilable with the violent reality?

When you film something or someone, you automatically distance yourself from them, no matter how involved you feel. The question is what you want to achieve with the visual material you build up. I asked a family in a refugee camp to return to their fire-damaged home. Normally they would never have done so this early, but they wanted to come with us and the UN troops. So there is a fictional aspect to the film, but the sheer intensity and silence that surrounded these events made us realize what it means to live in such circumstances. It is my responsibility to make the viewer feel or become aware of something he or she will not easily forget, and I can only do that by consciously directing the visual and aesthetic aspects of a film.

Is the audience as powerless as Borremans when he sees so much misery before him?

The viewer sees the suffering of others without being able to do anything about it. What is the viewer’s role? How does powerlessness feels? The film looks for answers. You get bits and pieces that explain why the violence broke out, but no solutions. The film does show that a lot of violence stems from the construction of identity, the right to landownership, the ideological manipulation of people and the relationships between immigrants and natives, rich and poor. I also suggest that something inexplicable remains hidden in each human action.

How do you want the audience to feel then at the end of the film?

I hope the film has a cathartic effect. As for Borremands, he realizes that everything is endlessly in motion and that nothing is ever complete, either for good or for evil. At the end of the film he understands his true destiny. After a spirit-cleansing ritual he reincarnates himself in the wind, understanding that there is beauty in invisibility and that Africa no longer needs the presence of a Western spirit. So the question is: does Africa need a new spiritual renaissance of its own? Does the continent need to expel this Western spirit in order to shape its own unique destiny? The film raises these questions without arriving at specific answers. If there are conclusions to be drawn from it, these are intentionally left to the audience.

Published on Tuesday 25 February 2014

Preferential partners