In the avantgarde masterpiece Het kwade oog (1937) by Charles Dekeukeleire, a strange wanderer is accused of possessing the evil eye. In reality, he is no less than a dreamer, a modern Orpheus in search of his lost beloved. The film was based on the play De vertraagde film by Herman Teirlinck. He wanted to create characters who experience a form of ‘prolonged time’ in the face of death, a mental state of reliving their own history. The great dramatic breakthrough is not the moment of death itself, but the afterlife that puts all things of the past into perspective.
What is the past of Belgian cinema? I believe this past should be passing, like a film, before the eyes of those filmmakers who are eager to write new film history today. In my view, the main dramatic events in Belgian film history are not being recalled often enough. Obviously spectators recall the pastoral tradition of common people in a rural landscape, so present in Belgian visual culture. Of course in Europe one is aware of the Dardenne brothers with their personal camera, of festival triumphs and celebrated actors. But Belgian film has an evil eye as well, although it is often covered. An eye like that of the magician/tramp in Dekeukeleire’s film: “He is blind. But his eyes are wide open and you would swear that moonbeams flow out.”
Belgian film history knows audiovisual pioneers, rebellious filmmakers and dream scientists: Joseph Plateau, Henri d’ Ursel, Ernst Moerman, Roland Lethem, Edmond Bernhard, Luc de Heusch, Chantal Akerman, Jean-Jacques Andrien, Thierry Zeno. I will not specify their mother tongue, their Walloon or Flemish background; it does not need to be a split screen. For this trilingual country, I wish filmmakers to present themselves as Belgian, joining the innovative tradition of which still too little is known both at home and abroad. For years, the Belgian coast hosted the high mass of experimental film: the Knokke Experimental Festival. We still savour the aftertaste of this dynamic impulse, for which Jacques Ledoux, the legendary curator of the Brussels Film Archive, was mainly responsible.
In the land of Magritte we still know lucid dreamers today: Olivier Smolders, Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, Nicolas Provost. They use the strategies of confusion and disorder, absurd humor and merciless self-understanding which I feel are typically Belgian. Initiatives such as the Filmlab of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), established some five years ago, stimulate courage and unwillingness to compromise in young directors. The international Film Festival of Ghent is openly seeking out daring minds. Here, a hopeful vision for the future is emerging: Belgian filmmakers need to identify themselves with the wizard once again. They have to grant themselves an evil eye, staring in the direction of persisting narrow-minded and all too easy-going audiovisual marketplaces. “To know if a soul is still alive, you have to hold up a mirror in front of the mouth”, one of Teirlinck’s characters utters. Let us hold up a mirror in front of our film history and be aware of the fact that the lover never really died.
Sofie Verdoodt is a visiting professor at the department of Performance Studies and Media at Ghent University and the artistic director of Art Cinema OFFoff in Ghent