Bas Devos • Director of Ghost Tropic
“I could have taken a three-month holiday, but instead I chose to write a film”
by Jan Lumholdt
- CANNES 2019: Belgian director Bas Devos sat down with us to explain how he made Ghost Tropic, a film shot in record time
When Belgian director Bas Devos presented his portrait of a traumatised Brussels in the wake of the 2016 attacks in Hellhole [+see also:
interview: Bas Devos
film profile], the depressed reactions to it spurred him on to create a counterpart filled with hope and light. Shot in record time, Ghost Tropic [+see also:
interview: Bas Devos
film profile] has just opened in the Cannes 2019 Directors’ Fortnight section.
Cineuropa: In Hellhole, you depict a Brussels in the aftermath of the 2016 terror attacks. You now return to the city, again in a current setting but seen in a different light. Was Ghost Tropic born out of Hellhole?
Bas Devos: Quite literally, yes. Some people who saw Hellhole went, “Wow, what a sad and terrifying place!” This was not my intention, and I had certainly hoped to show a ray of light at the end. “My God, what have I done?” I thought. I felt drained and in dire need of new energy. I could have taken a three-month holiday, but instead I chose to write a film. I realised that Hellhole had left out the answers to the very questions the film raised – largely on purpose, as I did not have any. Then, ever so slowly, things started to take shape in my head. Maybe the answer is really simple: we are human beings, and if we’re open to each other, there’s hope and light. And there was the film. We shot it in 15 days, or rather nights, with a very small crew and very little money.
Your protagonist is a woman of Maghrebi descent in her late fifties. What led to this choice?
During the preparation of Hellhole, I met many of the mothers of the boys who play in the film, and I became really intrigued by them. They are hardly ever represented. I see them on the streets in their headscarves, and we share the same space, but in movies and the news, they are absent. When I met them, it immediately struck me how strong they are – down to earth, industrious, well spoken and articulate about their social and cultural situation. They are anything but the quiet, naïve creatures who cook and tidy up behind closed doors. “Why not make one of them visible in a film?” I thought.
You took the title for Hellhole from Donald Trump’s description of Brussels after the 2016 attacks: “It's like living in a hellhole right now.” Where does the title Ghost Tropic come from?
For me, the title refers to an imaginary geographical space between reality and a dreamlike place. My vision of Brussels is, as those who live there will agree, quite absurd. She goes down the stairway somewhere in the north of the city, and then a few seconds later, she is in the south part! The locations are all places I like and wanted to use, as corny as this reason may sound. We have ugly shopping malls that I find beautiful, some bizarre and dark corners, the subway, which I love, and they’re all part of my fictionalised and dreamlike version of Brussels. I hope that people who know the city will find it joyful – let’s just enjoy the ride and be free!
Do you feel you managed to capture the light and the hope this time around?
You know, there was a Q&A after a screening here, and someone said that my film was the first he’d seen this year “without fear”. “Yes! I’ve done it,” I said to myself. I have managed to make a contrast with the “hellhole”-like life in the city through this woman and her involuntary journey through night-time Brussels, where she needs to involve other people in order to get help – which she both receives and sometimes also offers herself. And without fear!
The lead performance by Saadia Bentaïeb is impressive. Where did you find her?
She’s an established stage actress in France and has been with Joël Pommerat’s Compagnie Louis Brouillard since decades back – a proper theatre grande dame. The funny thing is that she had never been in a film until a few years ago. She has a beautiful part in BPM (Beats Per Minute) [+see also:
interview: Arnaud Valois
interview: Robin Campillo
film profile], and in my film, she has her first lead role. She was exactly what I was looking for – a modest presence that is physical and that doesn’t have to do anything to be seen. They are never shy, these women; they are modest. And then they say something and they look at you – and they are seen.
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