As a child, Leni Huyghe was fascinated by Christian ritual and the characters in the Bible, but without a religious upbringing she felt excluded from this world. Her short film, Matteus, which has been selected for the Cinéfondation competition at Cannes, turns this situation on its head.

Text | Ian Mundell         Portrait | Helene Lemonnier

Leni Huyghe (c) Helene Lemonnier'In this story I have a child who is not baptised, from a family that is really modern, comes from the city and is quite worldly,' she explains. 'They go to this village and the kid gets into the Bible very quickly, and in a very strange way.' And rather than rejecting the child, the village and its religious community appears to have been waiting for him.

Huyghe is aware that this scenario could be seen as a comment on religious extremism, but this wasn't her intention. 'For me, it's not black or white. It's really grey, and I leave it open,' she says. 'While the religious group is strange, you don't really know them. They might just be happy that this child has arrived. But of course the atmosphere is really dark, so perhaps I do push in one direction a little.’

Knowing that she wanted a dark atmosphere influenced the choice of location. Driving around the Flemish countryside she found an old vicarage that fitted the bill perfectly. 'When we arrived there was a dark field in front and then an abandoned garden, and I thought immediately we could shoot it there. I hadn't even seen the inside.'

She and the crew stayed at the house while they were shooting, which helped them discover atmospheric corners of the property. 'We found new spots that we could use, such as a little attic above a workshop,' she recalls. This proved to be vital because the weather was unseasonably good, making the exteriors far too green and bright for her purposes.

'I wanted this strange atmosphere that you find in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, for example,' she says. 'You have this village that comes into your life and you don't know what is going on. It was the idea of religion being a very alien thing that comes into the life of the family in the film, and they see it as a threat.' Another reference for the look of the film was Tomas Alfredson's eerie vampire film Let The Right One In.

She found her lead actor, Mateo Bal, at a youth theatre group. 'He stood out for me because he was really intuitive, and didn't act as a child would act. It was a risk, because he is a beautiful boy and originally I wanted someone who looked stranger. But he was really good, and he agreed to do it.'

Bal is in his early teens, significantly older than the character he plays, but this meant he was able to retain the lines from St Matthew's gospel that form part of his dialogue. 'These lines saying that the children will stand up against their parents and kill them, if you pick these out and put them in this context, they turn into something dark,' Huyghe explains. 'It's really ambiguous. That's what I liked about bringing together that atmosphere with that text and this beautiful kid.'

tougher process
Matteus is Huyghe's bachelor project at Sint-Lukas film school in Brussels, but she has already had some festival success in Flanders with a previous short, St James Infirmary. 'This was a black comedy about a therapy group for people who have a problem with death,' she says. ‘We shot it in a day and a half, and everything went perfectly.'

Making Matteus was a tougher process and the problems still colour the way Huyghe sees the film. ‘But suddenly it is selected for the Cinéfondation, so they must have seen something in the movie,’ she says.

Before Cannes, Huyghe was off to Brazil on a student exchange. 'To see if I can make a movie there, on the spot,' she says. And then in July she has to shoot her graduation film, which she describes as a love story that is not about love.

'It's about my generation and the way we got stuck in this total chaos of communication, and this twilight zone between being a child and adult life,' she says. 'It will be about dancing and music and all the things you are passionate about when you are young. But it's not about partying, it's more about passivity and showing yourself to the world and this abstract group of people on the internet.' (i)

Published on Thursday 10 May 2012

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