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Bas Devos • Director of Hellhole

“The need to find a home is what binds us; it’s a strong part of our shared story”

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- We met up with Belgian filmmaker Bas Devos to discuss his second feature, Hellhole, which is set to go on general release in Belgian cinemas on 20 March

Bas Devos  • Director of Hellhole
(© Erik De Cnodder)

In his award-winning feature debut, Violet [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, Bas Devos told the story of a youngster who was unable to cope with his state of shock after having witnessed the murder of a friend. In Hellhole [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Bas Devos
film profile
]
, the director transposes this state of confusion to a city, Brussels, where the inhabitants are unable to understand or communicate how they feel after the bombings of 22 March 2016.

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Cineuropa: How did you approach painting this portrait of the city, and why was the aftermath of the attacks the perfect moment to do so?
Bas Devos: I had been working in a clear direction on the script for this film, long before these attacks were even carried out. It was a dramaless and traumaless story about how these people inhabit the same space, but don’t necessarily share much more, in a city like Brussels, which is so complex. When the attacks happened, I was in shock; I couldn’t ignore it. Very often, people interpret the silence of the characters and their solitude as both an inability to communicate and a sign of loneliness, but I’m not entirely sure that I agree. I often use silence just to underline that there is a lot of emotional communication that happens without words. I think that the core of the original story was highlighted by the attacks.

What about the title?
Well, if you live in Brussels or Molenbeek, somebody might say that you live in the Jihadi capital of Europe. First you laugh and say, “Yeah, whatever.” But there comes a time when it is no longer funny. I wanted to use and abuse this word.

Why did you create these specific characters in order to make your film?
We have the doctor, the translator and the youngster. I found it fascinating how the doctor can transcend the different layers of society – if you want to speak about layers, that is, which I find problematic. Not everybody can gain access to other people’s homes like a doctor. The woman working for the European institutions represents the people who come to Brussels with a clear goal. They are here to work but not necessarily to settle long-term. Journalists sometimes ask me about the youngster and call him “the migrant”, even though he was born in Brussels. He’s home, but society doesn’t perceive him as what he is. Early on in the writing stage, this concept of “home” – what home is and how home works – was the trigger. The need to find a home is what binds us; it’s a strong part of our shared story.

How did you decide on this particular approach to small objects and street corners, using those long tracking shots?
I was thinking a lot about space and depth, and how to translate them to the screen. In the urban environment, there are always so many walls, which act as both invitations and limits. I wanted to implement this simple idea in the movie and, in addition, put meanings into objects as well. I wanted these shots to be emotional moments. Even though there’s no character involved and there’s no narrative reason to be there, just by looking and listening, they can get under your skin and affect you in some way. For me, filming the street corners was the most beautiful and most basic way to describe the urban space. We are much more used to a more God-like perspective – the skyline, for instance – that pictures the city as a homogeneous, united whole. This is not how I and the characters experience the city, but rather as a collection of street corners, little surprises and so on.

How hard was it to shoot in the European Parliament?
It was impossible. The only way we found to shoot was by entering with press badges. We only had a limited space where we could put the camera and then did a zoom shot. It was impossible to gain access to the surroundings. After 22 March, everything became inaccessible. There’s always the question of security.

Did you feel any kind of responsibility, given that you were making the movie about these events?
No, not for one second. Of course, as a filmmaker you have a lot of responsibility. If you work with reality, you automatically move within a political world. You need to be nuanced and careful. But we did not make any statements about politics or about these attacks; this is not a film about the attacks at all. Because normally, attacks themselves are not necessarily the most interesting moments. The most interesting points are what happens afterwards and where we go from there.

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