Bas Devos • Director of Here
"I wanted to turn attention, a prerequisite in our relationships with others, into a visual theme in the film"
- BERLINALE 2023: We met with the Flemish filmmaker to chat about his movie, offering up a fleeting and ephemeral encounter which opens the way to new-found wonder
With Here [+see also:
interview: Bas Devos
film profile], Bas Devos’ fourth feature film, presented in a world premiere within the 73rd Berlinale’s Encounters line-up, the director is continuing his cinematographic exploration of Brussels while inviting us to stop and take the time to look at the things (or the people) we don’t usually see. It follows in the footsteps of Stefan, a Romanian construction worker who takes a detour - before returning home for the holidays - which fast turns into an enchanting interlude when he makes the unexpected acquaintance of a young woman specialising in bryology, the study of moss.
Cineuropa: How did this project come about?
Bas Devos: I’d worked on my previous film with the Romanian theatre actor and director Stefan Gota, and I really wanted to work with him again. At the time, I was spending a lot of time thinking about foreign workers in Europe, and I realised that there was a huge Romanian community in Brussels of over 43,000 people. I’d never noticed, and I asked myself why. Their relative invisibility seemed strange to me, because lots of Romanians work in hospitals, and on building sites: literally the foundations of our society. At the same time, I’d come across a wonderful book by an American researcher specialising in moss, who looks back on its importance, its history, its role in nature.
I wanted to bring these two lines of thought together, and what kicked the story off, a very simple story, was the idea I had of Stefan, who was getting ready to spend a few weeks back in Romania, making a soup from the leftovers in his fridge and going out to give some to his loved ones. It would allow me to look into something incredibly vast, which links human beings together, and something really small, yet crucial and original.
So we have the character of Stefan to begin with, who crosses paths with a young bryologist. How did this encounter take shape in your mind?
I wrote lots of unfinished versions, with Stefan going from one loved one to another with his soup. But I wanted to invent a character who would make him want to stop, who captures his attention. So I was looking for a love story, but one which goes a little beyond a simple meeting. I wanted it to represent our capacity to pay attention. If only to see the moss, we need to focus our attention, get down on our knees, reconnect with the ground, the earth. But once we’ve seen it, we can’t ignore it anymore. It was a lovely way of turning attention, a prerequisite in our relationships with others, into a visual theme in the film.
Paying attention requires time, which is also what your films give us.
Obviously, we live in a world of distraction. I’m also connected to the world via my smartphone, but to really be with others, to live in the here and now more profoundly, we need to be able to cut off from the outside world. And I love the fact that cinemas, where we close the doors behind us for at least an hour and a half, still try to provide this kind of a sanctuary. It’s an illusion which I think is wonderful, and which I’m also reminded of when I’m observing moss, or when I’m looking into the eyes of someone I love.
There’s real poetry to the urban landscapes in your film. How do you come up with the tableaux feeding into them?
We tried to stay very close to the characters, whilst also including them in their environments. We often go from really big close-ups to far wider shots which allow us to understand where and how characters sit. Most of these decisions are made organically on set. Before this point, we mostly discuss what we want to convey, and the film’s poetic potential. I’ve always worked a lot on these two aspects in film: time - how much time a shot will last - and space - which part of the space do we see, and how do the characters occupy it? We used a pretty specific ratio, 5/4, which allowed us to envisage the space differently, notably the way we include two characters in this context. I’ve been working with the same team for a long time. I think we’ve developed a shared language.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
I like it when films are very open emotionally, when the audience has space to journey into the film, and bring their own emotions to it. I wanted to get people to think about the capacity we still have to be amazed. There’s so much beauty right there in front of us, which we don’t see. This beauty could appease some of our pain if we rediscover it.
(Translated from French)
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