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IFFR 2019 Limelight

Kenneth Mercken • Director of Coureur

“The storyline’s authenticity was paramount”


- Cineuropa sat down with Belgian director Kenneth Mercken to talk about fictionalising his real-life story while preserving its authenticity in Coureur

Kenneth Mercken • Director of Coureur
(© Toon Aerts)

Belgian director Kenneth Mercken unveiled his semi-autobiographic debut Coureur [+see also:
film review
interview: Kenneth Mercken
film profile
in international premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Cineuropa sat down with him to talk about fictionalising his real-life experiences while remaining true to authenticity.

Cineuropa: Your feature debut Coureur revolves around cycling. Koen Mortier also recently made a film about cycling, Angel [+see also:
film review
interview: Koen Mortier
film profile
, and he and Eurydice Gysel produced your debut. Is that a coincidence?
Kenneth Mercken
: Yes, it’s funny that we both decided to make cycling films. I think it was a coincidence. Koen is definitely passionate about the sport, that´s why he got involved with Coureur early on in the process. I started writing Coureur six years ago and then Koen read the book for Angel a few years after Coureur started to be developed.

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Your styles differ. Did he influence you in any way?
Koen was closely attached to the project. I made a short film about the dark side of cycling as my thesis while I was studying and the moment he saw the footage he got involved. So, our collaboration goes way back. His influence is such that he gets what I wanted to achieve out of me without imposing his own views. Koen made sure not to influence me too much. He knew what I wanted to make and he added to that. But he was also attached to the project as a script development coach, so was closely connected to Coureur creatively, too.

Coureur is a mix of fiction and real-life events. How did you balance the two?
I really wanted to tell my own story because I have lived through all of these experiences. However, I realised that in order to make a film about it, I needed to fictionalise it and create some distance. And that was not easy. In the beginning, it was all quite anecdotal. When it came to the characters that represented myself and my father, I didn’t them to be too documentary-like, as it didn’t really work story-wise. During the process, I succeeded in viewing the character from an outside perspective. The same goes for the editing. You can get too attached to the material you shoot. In order to cut and really see the story line, you need time.

How did you cast the characters, given that they are based on actual people?
First of all, we had to decide whether or not the protagonist would be portrayed by an actor or a cyclist. The producers and I thought it would be better to go for a cyclist, but we kept an open mind during the casting process. Secondly, the actor had to be a cyclist because he needed to have the right physique and know the jargon, given that I use a lot of improvisation. I got the impression that a lot of the young actors were pretending to be cyclists, but Niels Willaert really was one. I was impressed by how he was able to express a lot with his body.

The film has two crucial storylines, a father-son relationship and a dangerous competitive sportsmanship environment, the latter one doubling as a sort of exposé. What is the relation between the two storylines?
I see it rather dualistically. For me, the father-son theme is the more important of the two, but I also wanted to show this forbidden world that – as a former pro cyclist – I have experienced from the inside out. The storyline’s authenticity was paramount in order to break the omerta. But I wanted to make a statement as well.

Aren’t you afraid of a backlash from professional cycling circles for your unflattering depiction of the sport, including the doping and performance-enhancing drugs?
I knew what I was getting into. I worked on the project for so long, so I hope there will be some sort of reaction to the film. It would be good to have a discussion about doping and how much pressure young athletes are under.

Did you shoot a different ending to the home video clip?
No, that was how I wanted the film to end. Perhaps it was instinctive, but it felt important to declare that it was my story.

The clip serves as a sort of validation of authenticity.
Sure, but it is tricky. In a way, it is real, but the blood transfusion scene, for instance, which I consider to be quite symbolic, never really happened. On the other hand, I am sure my father would have done that for me.

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