So Help Me God: The rawness of reality
by Vassilis Economou
- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2017: Jean Libon and Yves Hinant, the Belgian duo behind the series Strip-Tease, deliver their first unconventionally realistic documentary feature, which is far from politically correct
Having already reached cult status among francophones, the Belgian television documentary programme Strip-Tease is widely known for its unconventional and unapologetic way of presenting edgy topics to its viewers. Created in 1985 by documentarian and graphic journalist Jean Libon and journalist Marco Lamensch, the programme intended to lift the lid on certain topics by following some unconventional filming and narrative rules. Yves Hinant joined the team as a recurring director from a very early stage. Libon and Hinant have now co-directed So Help Me God [+see also:
interview: Jean Libon and Yves Hinant
film profile], the first feature-length Strip-Tease documentary that is taking part in the Official Selection of the 65th San Sebastián International Film Festival.
Judge Anne Gruwez, an apparently celebrated and eccentric figure within the Belgian justice system, is investigating a 20-year-old cold case in which two prostitutes, Yolanda and Nicole, were brutally murdered in an upper-class neighbourhood in Brussels. With the help of a number of policemen, Gruwez is conducting further investigations into the four lead suspects, one of whom has recently died, while another is living abroad. While criminology methods have advanced significantly in recent times, the evidence needs to be re-examined, in particular a condom that contains six different DNA profiles. As the main story unfolds, the film also follows other “everyday” cases that the judge has to contend with, from small-time crooks to cases of domestic violence or even a graphic description of infanticide. And thus an off-limits society is exposed through a judge’s eyes.
The power of So Help Me God lies in the rawness that its co-directors believe in so strongly, as well as in freedom of speech and their uncensored storytelling style. What enhances this genuine nature is the fact that there was no preparation carried out in advance, no prior script, no interviews with the participants, and no commentary or on-screen text. They had already dealt with Gruwez in a previous Strip-Tease episode entitled Madame Judge, but now all of the facts are new, and the documentary was shot over a period of three years. The murder case seems an excellent pretext to further observe certain aspects of the Belgian justice system and, by extension, Belgian society, through the politically incorrect profile of the judge and her gritty cases. Despite the seriousness of the subjects, the film is not lacking in splashes of (black) humour, or even more relaxed moments, such as when the judge needs to detach herself from the obscure reality she’s dealing with.
Thanks to the purist, fly-on-the-wall shooting style (virtually forgotten nowadays), the documentary doesn’t beautify any of its subjects and follows a cinéma vérité approach that is a far cry from the over-stylised documentary trends we see nowadays. The dynamic offered by the content alone, along with a rarely seen side of public faces, is another advantage of Libon and Hinant’s rejection of dramatisation. It is likely that true connoisseurs of their work won’t be surprised by these choices, although this non-conformist cinema language is a pleasant experience for those who wish to take a voyeuristic plunge into the darkest recesses of humanity, which seem almost unrealistic and fictional. As the tagline correctly points out, it’s not cinema; it’s worse.
So Help Me God is a French-Belgian co-production by Bertrand Faivre (Le Bureau Films) with Artémis Productions, France 3 Cinéma, RTBF, VOO, Be Tv and Shelter Prod; it was supported by Canal+. The Bureau Sales handles the international sales, whereas ARP Sélection and Cinéart will distribute the documentary in France and Belgium, respectively.
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