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"A microcosm that shows us the changes underway in society"

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Felix Van Groeningen • Director


- Cineuropa caught up with Felix van Groeningen, who recently won the Prize for Best Director at Sundance for Belgica, his latest film, which has just been bought by Netflix.

Felix Van Groeningen • Director

Nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film two years ago with The Broken Circle Breakdown [+see also:
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interview: Felix van Groeningen
interview: Felix Van Groeningen
interview: Felix Van Groeningen
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, which was a roaring success among critics and audiences alike, Felix Van Groeningen is back with Belgica [+see also:
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interview: Artemio Benki, Sylvie Leray
interview: Felix Van Groeningen
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, a story full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll about two brothers, who love one another and rip each other to shreds over the bar that they’ve created, the Belgica.

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Cineuropa: Where did the story come from?
Felix Van Groeningen: My father had a bar in Gent between 1989 and 2000, the Charlatan, and everything you see in the film, I more or less experienced first-hand. I saw a small friendly bar grow with the enthusiasm and ambition of the people who worked there. I saw just how exhilarating it can be, and how it can also become a place of debauchery. I also saw the world change through the prism of this bar, and how eventually, the team had to make decisions that went against their initial intentions. That said, this isn’t an autobiographical film. In 2000, my father sold the bar to two brothers, and they’re the ones at the heart of my story. I met up with them several times to ask them questions, along with other employees of the bar, the bouncers and the barmen. It seemed like an interesting subject for a film, it’s a microcosm that shows the changes underway in society. I also wanted to make a film with a bit of rock ‘n’ roll!

Is the Belgica a central character of the film, a sort of monster that slips away from its creators?
That was our aim, but it’s not easy to bring such a concept to life. In the screenplay, we insisted on the change in the balance of the relationship between the two brothers, the way they evolve and their view of the world changes, with the Belgica changing along with them. We see that most clearly in the scenes portraying the business meeting with the bar team. Initially everyone’s on the same page, and gradually, the two brothers assert themselves, the prices change and the entrance policy changes. The other vehicle is music, which is what makes the character of the Belgica. It acts a bit like its dialogue, and also changes the rhythm of the establishment. By the end, the soul of the Belgica hasn’t disappeared, but order is needed to organise the chaos. The two brothers have gone so far in their excesses that they can’t turn back. They turn the Belgica into a huge monster with only its soul remaining. But finding a balance comes at a price.

How did you film the freedom of the night and the party atmosphere?
We had one rule, that there were no rules. We took lots of different approaches; each scene was like starting over. The idea was to go as far as possible in exploring our ideas. We shot some really extreme things, which you won’t necessarily find in the final edit. We wanted a different visual approach for every party; some are very stylised, others are more raw, more natural. It was also essential that all the bands played live. The sound was a huge job. Soulwax (editor’s note: the group that put together the entire soundtrack for the film, and most notably created the dozen or so groups that play on stage at the Belgica), the sound engineer and the sound mixer insisted on working like that, and when you’re sitting watching the film in the cinema, you feel like you’re in the concert hall. We had twenty or so microphones, which was complicated, but very creative actually. We chose to film with small cameras that were very easy to manipulate. As we were working with an expensive set-up, we always used two cameras, one shoulder-mounted camera and one steadycam. Also, as we were also filming live music, the fewer the takes the better! All in all we managed it in 45 days of filming with two cameras. Sometimes, we’d let the groups play, and people dance freely; that allowed us to really capture the energy of the night as best we could.

The film will be released in theatres in a handful of countries, including France and Belgium, but Netflix has just bought the rights to the film for the rest of the world, in particular the United States. How was that decision made?
We received their proposal, and I was delighted. The world is changing, and I think it’s the right time to try these things. Perhaps in a year’s time we’ll regret it, we’ll realise it was too early and the film won’t be released in certain countries or shown at certain festivals, but right now, we can’t just turn our backs on what Netflix or Amazon are offering! The time’s right! They’re thirsty, they’re pushing projects they really like. In parallel to their more commercial projects, they’re taking risks. In countries that are important to us (especially France and Belgium), the film is being released in theatres. In smaller countries, the film could have eventually been released in theatres, but how can we be sure? In the United States, it was important to release The Broken Circle Breakdown in theatres so that the film could participate in the Oscars, but in concrete terms, you can’t say that it really did all that well. This time, Belgica will be released on Netflix in the United States, and I think that fits well with the project, it could attract a young audience and generate buzz online, also thanks to the music.

(Translated from French)

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