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“Making a film in Luxembourg forces you to face an aesthetic conundrum”

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Govinda Van Maele • Director

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- TORONTO 2017: Cineuropa sat down with Govinda Van Maele to discuss the story behind his debut feature, Gutland, which has screened in the Discovery section

Govinda Van Maele  • Director
(© Vincent Courtois/Festival EntreVues)

Luxembourgian writer-director Govinda Van Maele explores the limits of fantasy and reality in his “surrealist rural noir” debut feature, Gutland [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Govinda Van Maele
film profile
]
, which had its world premiere in the Discovery section of the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival. Cineuropa had a chance to talk to him about his inspiration, the search for identity and his country’s “immaculate” image.

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Cineuropa: What was the premise behind your film, and why did you create a rural film noir?
Govinda Van Maele:
My intention was to make a film that was almost documentary-like in its approach to the reality it depicts, while pushing the narrative into an increasingly fantastical, surreal realm. I’m not very interested in objective reality, whatever that might be, but I find it essential that my film stays true to me and the realities of the world I live in. I find genre cinema, and particularly film noir, a great way to approach very real and relevant societal issues in an indirect and satirical manner.

I grew up in a village very much like the one depicted in the film, and as kids, my brother and I used to make little action films on neighbouring farms, so giving the film a rural setting was a no-brainer – in a way, it’s a return to my roots. A fun side fact: a good part of the film was shot in my village – including the street just outside my door.

What is the catch when a stranger is welcomed to a “Good Land”?
The “Good Land” in my film, so named after the area in which it is set, is in dire need of new, outside blood, but it is also extremely wary of anything that might change the status quo. Jens, our stranger, is welcomed with open arms. He is given a place to stay, a job and a prêt-à-porter future if he is willing to take it, but there is a price to be paid. In order to safeguard the communal identity, he has to give up his own. 

So do they need him to retain their identity?
One’s own identity can be tricky to identify if there is no point of reference, but if a stranger enters your environment, what you are and what you are not are quickly put into perspective in relation to this other person. The rise of populism currently visible in Europe is an example of that: being confronted with other ethnic, cultural identities suddenly makes you aware of who you are and what they are not; it reinforces your identity and makes you feel threatened by the other. Gutland plays on that, as the village community in my film leaves the intruder only two options: assimilate or keep out. The outsider is accepted only if he gives up his identity and becomes one with them. In the film, this idea finds material form in the transformation that takes place over the course of the story. By the end, Jens has physically morphed from one person into another, and the village has created his new persona in their own image. 

Are you undermining the “immaculate” image that outsiders have of Luxembourg?
It wasn’t my intention to undermine the image that Luxembourg has abroad; my intention was simply to reflect the reality that I see around me, independent of what people assume about the country, and also independent of the image that the country itself is trying to project to the outside world. Making a film in Luxembourg soon forces you to face an aesthetic conundrum: there is very little erosion visible, as an immaculate surface covers everything. The walls are all freshly painted, the roads show no signs of wear, and all the cars seem new. That’s a difficult place to set a story in. If I want to make a film that does not want to hide that reality, I will have to embrace it. So, making a film in Luxembourg forces you to deal with that immaculate surface, and very quickly it becomes the very subject of your film. The only alternative I would have had would have been to scout the country for the most derelict places I could find and stitch together a village that looks nothing like Luxembourg – but what would have been the point?

Is there a happy ending or not?
Yes and no! Our protagonist finds peace and happiness in giving himself up to the community, by aligning with everyone else. It’s the classic happy-ever-after: married with children and your own little house – a decent, ordinary citizen. Jens finds his freedom in complete imprisonment.

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