Honorary Professor at ULB, Filmmaker and Screenwriter

By Pick Keobandith, Founder and International Director, Inspiring Culture.
Photos Lucas De Spiegeleer

In these dark days, taking up the challenge of attending a series of master classes on film led by Luc Dardenne at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) meant taking a deep breath, freeing myself from my daily routine, while learning about different cultures, aware of our common underlying humanity. It was impossible really not to support the initiative of Professor Dominique Nasta, the energetic vice-president of the Masters in Performing Arts (film, theatre, dance, performance art, opera, circus…) at ULB. On her invitation the company Transe-en-Danse livened up two of the evenings with dance performances based on the experience of a diversified community of undocumented migrants from all over the world. These spontaneous performances were deeply moving to watch and they resonated with the issues raised by the Belgian brothers in their films.

As promised by the title, “You, me and the other” – “Toi, moi et l’autre” was four days of intense reflection on social issues. It was definitely not all laughter and fun; instead we studied three films by the Dardenne brothers – Jean-Pierre and Luc – that were almost unbearable with their cold clarity: The Promise (1996), Lorna’s Silence (2008), and Young Ahmed (2019). This great duo of Belgian filmmakers has been awarded the Palme d’Or twice at the Cannes Film Festival as has the English filmmaker Ken Loach, another representative of social cinema with the addition of scathing humour. The Dardenne brothers, stars in their own country, do everything together from writing the scripts to producing their films about politically left-wing themes. Their fame is international.

Luc Dardenne, this time without his brother, delivered a series of lectures to about fifty students, the ‘happy few’ on the Masters course in Performing Arts 1 and 2, and myself, a curious Lao woman who felt a little lost in this large amphitheatre. The masterclass was filmed for those absent.
The dashing filmmaker was quite extraordinary, as he shared his expertise in a warm and friendly manner. He analysed scripts, narration and the directing from sociological, narrative and aesthetic aspects with relation to issues of illegal immigration, human trafficking, religious fanaticism and questioned the position of ‘the other’ – the stranger to you and me in our society…
It was fascinating to listen to Luc Dardenne talk about film. He and his brother never aim to please the public but want people to experience intense emotions. They make films where words are kept to a minimum, creating tension as they reveal well-documented hard realities. The brothers show us another side of Belgium and their direct experience feeds their work.

Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne

For example, in “The Promise”, they show the evolution of the relationship between father and son. To emphasize the drama as the narrative unrolls, the Dardenne brothers make their characters encounter obstacle after obstacle at breath-taking speed. There is no time to get bored as you want to find out how the son will eventually stop loving the complex personality of his father. And how he moves on from the relationship of the father son couple – You, Me – and opens up to the Other, the stranger.

In “Lorna’s Silence” the Dardenne brothers were interested in miscellaneous news items in Belgium about sham marriages and the fate of drug addicts. Their scenario is not a simple one as it is to all evidence based on reality and the desire to make a film about fugitives. Lorna’s character is a foreign woman with an Eastern European accent connected to a corrupt Albanese mafia organisation who has found her a Belgian husband. As she considers him to be less than a man, she accepts that he be killed in exchange for obtaining Belgian nationality and carrying out her dream of opening a snack bar in the wonderful kingdom of Belgium. She fails miserably and has to go back to where she came from with her imaginary child. The ending of her story has an unsettling dreamlike quality as she flees into the woods.

In “Young Ahmed”, the Dardennes looked at religious fanaticism, which informed their creative imagination. They made a film about a particular child turning to the Islamic religion. And they question as to how he might get out of it. Something will help this child find a simple life. The film does not insult Muslims, but shows a desire to understand and examine the complexity of human life. In it the Dardenne brothers show the point of view of white Christians.

During this 75th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival this May, the Dardennes brothers will be showing their film “Tori and Lokita”. Could they be on the way to winning yet another Palme d’Or at the most prestigious international film competition in the world?

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne were born in the industrial outskirts of Liège. They are politically engaged filmmakers and profoundly humanist. They are known for their powerful films that at first seem void of any visible emotion. They often choose to take their inspiration from the sad truths of their flat homeland. They tell stories, delving deep into the same dramatic themes about precarity, clandestine activity, sham marriages, immigration, fanaticism… creating films as you might build a sculptural work of art keeping to a certain aesthetic, then sharing them with the world that is common to us all: “You, Me and the Other”.