Bas Devos made his second feature film with “Hellhole”, a portrait of a damaged city of Brussels after the terrorist attacks in 2016. Just three months later, he returned to the big screen with “Ghost Tropic”, depicting the way home of an immigrant woman in the dark streets of Brussels.
WEEKEND: In “Hellhole” we get a portray of Brussels after the terrorist attacks in 2016 from the perspective of three different characters that are not direct victims of these attacks. Why did you decide to tell the story from their point of view and how did you come up with the characters?
Bas Devos: I never intended to make a film about these attacks. When they happened, I was deep into a script about Brussels. Brussels, as many contemporary cities, offers a home to a very diverse population. The question of home was at the centre of the story. For me home is about more than a physical space. It is also a sense of belonging, a community. In Brussels, because of its extreme diversity and complexity (there’s no common language), these themes are tangible in the streets. After the attacks in 2016 they only became more pertinent. Since I wanted to speak about a political reality, a real Brussels, I had to include them in some way. They became part of the fabric of the city. But I kept the characters I started with. People with a very different context and sociocultural background that would be, like me, not directly hit by these attacks but that would suffer the consequences nonetheless albeit in very different ways. They are people I know or people I have met during preparations. I was looking for ordinary people whose lives, though sharing the same arena, would barely touch.
It was Donald Trump who described Brussels as a “hellhole” back in 2016, at a time where you were already deeply involved in the project. Why did you choose to name the film after his words?
It’s but one of the many ridiculous labels people who don’t live here have used to describe the city. The film is not a naïve portrait. It tries to show how hard it really is to deal with the reality of a super-divers 21st century city. This is a real place, full of real people, with real hopes and dreams. Not an imaginary hellhole. So the film relates to it’s brutal, impolite title. Throughout it tries to negate the banality of the word by its humanism.
“Hellhole” describes a state of confusion where Brussels inhabitants are unable to communicate how they feel after the bombing. You have a very cinematic way in illustrating this state of confusion. Can you tell us how you worked with that technically and visually?
That’s a hard question. I can say that I shared the state of the characters. I myself felt confused and overwhelmed. The question I struggled with was: where do we go from here? How will we deal with this? But it was too early to answer that question. I think in many of the visual choices we started from a double idea: never to really show the ‘whole’ but to show but details of the city in order to add to this feeling of being lost and at the same time to sometimes show things literally from all sides, as to illustrate the different perspectives one could have perhaps? I put up a question mark because I am sure. Many choices came intuitively and they felt right.
Only three months after “Hellhole” premiered in Berlin, you opened Director’s Fortnight in Cannes with your third feature film, “Ghost Tropic”, returning to the same subject but seen from the perspectives of under-represented immigrant women. Why did you decide to follow up ‘Hellhole’ with this story?
I felt during the making Hellhole that I couldn’t really grasp what the film would turn out to be. I was surprised that many people described the film as hard or depressing. I had the feeling I didn’t do enough maybe to highlight the humanity and poetry that was present in the film. Out of this feeling, that the story was somehow unfinished, the idea was born to tell a very simple and warm story. I attempted to offer a modest answer to some of the questions Hellhole raised. And at the same time, I was in need of lightness. A film that would make me feel free and unburdened after the hard process of Hellhole.
"I wanted to make a road movie because it would allow me to drift without ever losing a sort of ‘goal’. The setup is very simple and clear and this allows me an enormous freedom while giving the audience something to hold on to: the way home."
In ‘Ghost Tropic’, we follow the female protagonist during a single night in the streets of Brussels. What are your idea behind this simple time frame and narrative?
I wanted to make a road movie because it would allow me to drift without ever losing a sort of ‘goal’. The setup is very simple and clear and this allows me an enormous freedom while giving the audience something to hold on to: the way home.
Simplicity plays an important role throughout the film. How did you visually and technically address this?
It was written to be made with a small(er) budget. So from its inception I wanted a film that would be in story, visuals and production light. We opted to shoot on film and its restrictions forced us to simplify even more. We had very little extra light and only some nights where machinery would be involved. In a way, we applied the same visual philosophy as in my first two films: what is the most stripped down but engaging way we can tell this story? We don’t shoot to shoot, we shoot what (we think) we need.
In contrast to the process with 'Hellhole', 'Ghost Tropic' was shot in only 15 days. Can you tell us about this brief and intense creative process?
Because of the way we film, a simple decoupage, these 15 days felt sufficient. I didn’t necessarily have a ‘rushed’ feeling. We prepared well. The most time in preparation goes to location scouting. The locations are very important. The shoot never really was all that different from my previous experiences. I work with people I love and know very well. They know me as well and so there is an understanding in how we will do things. But above all: it was really fun. I felt light and free. I enjoyed our nightly time together very much.
"Brussels is a place where everything is so visible. Homeless people sleep in the streets, immigrants hang around in the parks and businessmen make their way through rougher neighbourhoods on their way to work. It’s a super divers city, which makes it a super complex city. After the attacks of 2016, this became even more apparent."
Brussels is an essential part of the story in both 'Hellhole' and 'Ghost Tropic'. What are your thoughts behind this? Which image of Brussels would you like to portray?
I wanted to treat Brussels in Hellhole as a political reality. A real place, filled with real people. Brussels is a place where everything is so visible. Homeless people sleep in the streets, immigrants hang around in the parks and businessmen make their way through rougher neighbourhoods on their way to work. It’s a super divers city, which makes it a super complex city. After the attacks of 2016, this became even more apparent.
The Brussels in Ghost Tropic is an imaginary place. It floats somewhere between reality and dream. It is the city Brussels could be and sometimes is. Where people are open to each other.
Last but not least, what are you doing next? Do you have any future projects you would like to share with us?
There’s work in progress.