Bas Devos @ Erik De CnodderHere: An Interview with Bas Devos Maria Giovanna Vagenas May 2023 Interviews Issue 105 With Here, his fourth feature film and winner of the Encounters and the Fipresci Award at the 73rd Berlinale, the Belgian director Bas Devos creates a luminous, delicate, and subtle film that inspires awe. Through meticulous framing, the ability to build a narrative through ellipsis, and a sense of real time, Devos brilliantly explores the wonder of the ordinary. Here is set in summery Brussels, where frequently cloudy skies and unexpected downpours steep us in a gentle melancholy. Following in the footsteps of Stefan, the film’s protagonist, a young Romanian construction worker who struggles with insomnia, the director invites us to wander through the city at all hours of day and night, on a stirring journey that ultimately proves to be a quest for the self. Here establishes an arrestingly quiet, restrained manner, immediately revealing the film’s unique atmosphere and feel. At first, some office buildings in an urban setting are framed from a distance. Then we see another shot of these same buildings from a different angle. The following frame continues this quiet and measured approach by showing us images of the interior of a large building under construction. The silhouettes of workers appear stealthily moving between the doorways and up and down the stairs. We hear unclear mumblings and building site noise. We then spot some foreign workers eating lunch in a nearby park. There is joy and excitement in the air. It is the last working day before the site closes for the summer, and everyone is looking forward to going back home on vacation. A few hours later, three of them, two Romanians, including Stefan, and an African man, are sitting in the back of a bus. We haven’t heard a single line of dialogue since the film began, yet the core of their lives has fully emerged. They eventually get off the bus and salute each other warmly before the summer break. Stefan, a cordial guy with a disarming face, brilliantly portrayed by Stefan Gota, walks into his apartment and opens the fridge door right away. He needs to empty it before driving back to Romania. He makes soup out of whatever he can find and pours it into numerous plastic containers. This soup becomes the story’s engine. Stranded in Brussels for the weekend because his car breaks down, Stefan gives this soup to various friends while saying goodbye to them in the process. Here In a simple and unspectacular way, Here’s story captivates us with its peaceful pace, the gentleness and benevolence of its characters, their care for each other and their interest for the world they are living in. Intense and brilliant, shot on film, and beautifully lit by cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove, the urban environment of Here is surprising; we gradually come across a world of lush vegetation that spreads into the city’s interstices, reclaiming more and more ground as we move away from the centre. Unexpected communal gardens, a wooded area on the outskirts, and the fascinating presence of moss all unfold before our eyes as Stefan walks through the greenery, which is even more enigmatic and captivating by night. In a delicate, joyful downpour, fate brings Stefan into contact with Shuxiu – dazzling Liyo Gong – a young botanist of Chinese origin. They have an instant connection. Far from being alone, they are both solitary, two dreamers completely absorbed in quiet and careful observation of the world. Both like to dwell on what is modest and imperceptible. Stefan discovers various seeds in his trouser pocket and wonders how they got there and what kind of seeds they are. Shuxiu, a moss scholar, sees through her microscope fascinating forests in the structure of this humble plant, which is so common that it is rarely noticed. Yet behind their being kind and caring is a sense of unease. While Shuxiu’s whirling bilingualism and cultural duality turn her sleep into a nightmare where she can no longer remember the names of things around her, Stefan wanders around in the grip of insomnia, consumed by worries that are never revealed. Always sensitive to immigration issues, Devos portrays them with insight and restraint; using a gallery of secondary characters to achieve a nuanced portrayal, such as Stefan’s sister who works at a local hospital, Shuxiu’s aunt, the owner of a small Chinese restaurant, and Stefan’s friend, the mechanic, played by the late great Teodor Corban. Blending lyricism with a firm grasp of reality, Devos strives for the essential. With his elegant, poised scenes shot in 4:3 format and a similarly accurate soundscape, he draws attention to the intensity of each and every moment, its complexity and frail beauty. Playful and light-hearted, the film’s ending hints at the beginning of a beautiful love story that will stay with us for a long time. The conversation with the director took place during the 73 Berlinale. – MGV Between 2006 and 2023, you shot four feature films and three shorts, carving out your own cinematic path. Looking back from today’s perspective, what initially drew you to cinema? As a young guy, film studies allowed me to combine many of my interests. I went to film school when I was only 18 years old and I was one of the few young students back then. Today, I teach at the same place where I studied (the Luca School of Arts in Brussels). But, to be honest, what truly inspired me to go to film school was Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). This film made a deep impression on me because it defied logic and rationality. I saw a sort of madness on screen and I was really intrigued by how the film seems to visually deteriorate while it is progressing. Aguirre made me understand that there is so much I still don’t know. It sort of triggered my curiosity! Here Ghost Tropic (2019), which was shown at the Directors Fortnight, shares some characteristics with Here (2023), such as the nocturnal wanderings and characters who are immigrants. Is there some kind of continuity? That’s the way it is! It’s difficult to quit thinking about a film and say, “Now we’re going to cut and start something completely new,” because there are always aspects that persist, which are a kind of challenge for me. Did I manage to say everything I wanted to say, or was there something that touched me that I couldn’t express? Ghost Tropic was almost conflict-free, it tells a story of connection and collaboration, instead of conflict. I try to think a lot about the audience’s expectations, especially when it comes to the narrative form. Do people expect a narrative structure that is frequently generated or hastened by an incident, a story that finally becomes violent, whether emotionally or physically? Often, there is some type of violence that begins the narrative, that gets the story rolling, but I didn’t have that kind of thinking in mind when I started Here. I just had the idea of a guy with a fridge! We’ve gotten used to a particular style of storytelling, a particular narrative, both in terms of form and content. To counter the narrative that is expected, is something that is quite difficult, and it’s something that I didn’t always do very well. I struggled a lot with this, especially in my first two films. I wanted to make films about people simply seeing each other and being with each other, because it’s something that I find very mysterious and very deep in many ways. But, how does one get there, if there is no major starting point? In this regard, I was delighted to note that In Winter, Hong Sang Soo’s latest film, was also featured in Encounters, because it resonates strongly with what I find beautiful in films. Besides, this is why I have stopped speaking about “small films”. I say “films with small budgets”. I dislike the fact that we often refer to, say, Hong Sang Soo’s films as “small films” while they are far more profound and crucial than any new Marvel blockbuster! What was the original idea behind Here? How did this project start? There was no single, well-defined starting point; rather, several starting points that began to converge throughout the process. I was researching and considering labour migration in Brussels, namely Romanian labour migration, because the city has a sizable Romanian community. Despite the fact that I knew a few Romanians, I was unable to really grasp the size of this group of relatively recent immigrants. This research evolved in parallel with my reading and exploring of the microscopic world of the smallest plants, such as lichen, moss, and fungi. I was fascinated and intrigued by how these tiny plants speak to our origins and our relationship to the natural world. These two subjects first appeared to be somewhat independent, and I wasn’t sure if they would ever cross paths, but soon, very gradually, they began to move together. In addition to this, I wanted to work with Stefan Gota, who plays the film’s main character. He played a little role in my previous picture, Ghost Tropic. I intuitively felt that I wanted to work with him hoping as well to get to know him better through this collaboration. For me to make a film is also an excuse to learn things, to get to know people and to dive into a specific subject, especially at the beginning of a project when the narrative is still unclear. Filmmaking is an excuse to be curious and, sometimes a film might emerge from that curiosity! Here How did these two different starting points merge into a story? In a work-in-progress, there are always these moments where a new desire arises. After several conversations with Romanians living in Brussels, at a certain moment I realised that if I wanted to make a film about them, the film would be about the ground we walk on and the claim that we lay upon a certain piece of territory or land, and how that is also something that is constantly shifting. When I began to consider land and land usage in relation to construction workers who actually dig into the ground to make the foundations for enormous buildings, I became fascinated by this natural world that also demanded that I go to the ground and touch the ground. At this stage I saw, for the first time, a very plain analogy between these two potential subjects. I was pulled to the ground and started looking at the earth to gain a deeper understanding of what it meant to dig into it, go down on your knees, and touch it. Sometimes, a series of small, banal steps lead to something that might become poetic, but when I start to dissect them, I understand how plain they are… The story revolves largely around the two excellent leads, Stefan Gota as Stefan and Liyo Gong as Shuxiu. How did you cast them? Stefan Gota is a friend of mine. Even though he is quite modest and never really intrudes too much, I owe him a lot of credit for being a conversational partner while I was writing the film. At the time, I told him I wanted him to be part of it, but I had no idea in what capacity he was going to join the project. However, as soon as he was in it, I was extremely appreciative of how he listened to me and spoke about his own experience in a very knowledgeable way. The same goes for Leo, Liyo Gong. I found her in a totally different way. We were connected through common friends, but we didn’t know each other. What triggered my interest was the fact that she is a film editor. She has worked, for instance, with Wang Bing but she’s also a DJ. This was intriguing to me because she also has a public persona. I know so many editors who like to be hidden behind computers but Leo also had this performative side. On a pure intuition, I asked her if she was willing to talk with me about the film and then we just tried out some things. She was really a bit surprised when she found out I wanted her to be in the film. She said to me: “I’m an editor, I’m not an actor!”. She was probably thinking that I was going to ask her to help me develop the Chinese character in the film, to better understand what it means to be born in Belgium to Chinese parents, to speak Chinese with them, but then French in daily life. I think she only realised relatively late that I wanted her to act! Here Did you finalise the plot before the shoot? I had a kind of storyline around the soup and I had a kind of storyline around the moss and I felt that they were intimately connected. I just didn’t really know how to make sense of it narratively, I mean within a narrative structure. How do I go from a guy who’s working on a building site to this world of the smallest? While speaking to these two, wonderful people, I started to understand that it can be simple: two characters just accidentally meet each other and then something happens. It doesn’t need to be explained or it doesn’t have to be more than that. We just accept it, as it is. For example, Stefan says: “I have to go get my car” and then in the next shot, he’s on his knees and he’s looking at moss. We just accept it. And I think that’s nice! You sensitively show the resilience of the plant world in the city. There is a brief scene where Shuxiu, the female protagonist, sees some moss growing on a sidewalk in the centre of Brussels and cautiously collects it. The beauty of a plant growing out of the asphalt is very telling to me. What does the coexistence of nature and urban landscape mean to you? We are deeply connected to the plant world, yet the so-called technological development makes us often oblivious to this crucial bond. Part of my research and my interest in this film was the fact that there is a sort of omnipresent but invisible green world in our cities. You need to pay a renewed attention to it, to be aware of it but, once you start to perceive it again, you see it everywhere and you are really struck by its constant presence. I don’t think it’s something profound. In fact, it’s quite obvious. Nevertheless, I was just amazed when I realised how my own perception of the city changed once I started to notice moss growing everywhere. Moss is a very resilient plant. It grows on the sides of buildings the same way it would grow on cliffs in rocky areas. It’s interesting to see these analogies between the man-made structures and the nature. Again, it’s very unspectacular but it is magical to be a little bit in touch with this notion of interconnectedness. I guess it’s also a reason why so many people are drawn to literature that revaluate our connection to the natural world. For instance, a lot has been written about how fungal networks function allowing plants to communicate with each other up to a certain level. Sometimes maybe we anthropomorphise or read a little bit too much into it. Nevertheless, this research speaks to us about a world we sort of forgot but are attuned to. The night is a crucial element of the narrative in your films. Stefan, the main character of Here is an insomniac. What is most intriguing to you about the night? I am very interested in how perception and lived experience can alter and change once you move into the night. In fact, there are two dreams or dream-like sequences in the film, but I never consciously treated them like this while writing. I was more interested in the poetic image of somebody not being able to sleep and getting lost at night. While just wandering the streets, the mind also starts to see things and to unconsciously alter them, surprising us in strange ways. Think, for instance, of the way someone may read some signs just because they’re not well lit. It all becomes a trick of the mind at a certain stage and you see things that are not really there. In my opinion, this altered condition of perception and senses is incredibly cinematic. Without overthinking it too much, it’s something that I try to weave into my films because I like the balance between reality and a deeply subjective or expanded feel of it, a reality that shifts, that is fluid and changes before our eyes. I like to think about dreams or nightmares as being real, and a film for me is a way of making them feel real. That is something that drives me. Here There is a wonderful sequence where the protagonist meets his sister at night in the cafeteria of the hospital where she works and, suddenly, we are in a forest. It is sunny, but it is also raining, and the camera glides in a high, sophisticated manner, up in the air and back down to earth. After a sudden cut Stefan says to his sister, “Sorry I fell asleep…” This sequence says a lot in terms of a dream reality in Here. Do you agree? Yes, absolutely! I wrote a scene in the hospital, the workplace of the protagonist’s sister. I had this idea that Stefan would ask her to speak and then he would fall asleep because this is precisely why he wants her to speak, in order to calm down and to get out of his own thoughts. I was imagining, what if she tells a story that is not a story at all? What if she speaks about the forest? Instead of saying, “Oh, the hospital is so crowded and there are so many sick people!“, she would say, “Rain falls and we are in a forest and the sun is shining…” And then I thought that I just wanted to turn all this into a concrete image and to shoot a dreamlike sequence about trees. Her story and his dream somehow mingle and become something else. There are many cuts in the editing which bring us abruptly from one place to the other; the fact that we are suddenly in a forest, felt very natural to me. That was what I was hoping for, but I can imagine that a lot of people would read this sequence in retrospect as a sort of dream, whereas for me, it was just nice to jump from a hospital at night to a weird forest during the day. A lot of my pleasure while making a film comes from these kinds of thoughts. Drawing an analogy between literature and film, a good cut for me is like when you turn a page in a book. Imagine a nice sentence at the end of a chapter, then you turn the page and there’s a new sentence, a new image and a new chapter. A good cut is like flipping a page and starting a new chapter. I hope it works like that in the film! You mainly use static shots, which, as you just noted, have the feel of “a page”. I find it very hard to think about a camera movement if I don’t understand why the camera moves. Often there is just a dynamic reason for the camera to move. When a character is walking, it is always very pleasant if the camera adjusts its tempo to the walking figure. Then, of course, there are more poetical steps where a camera movement can really transport us and where it becomes meaningful because so many other shots are, indeed, steady. But in general, while watching films, I often don’t understand why the camera is behaving the way it is. I always want to make it as simple as possible, like a decoupage, in a way. If I want to move closer, because there is something that I want to see closer, then I make a close-up and if, on the other hand, I find it interesting to understand the context, I will stay at a certain distance. There is a certain development in the use of the camera movements over my films, but there is a sort of, let’s say, continuous joy in finding a beautiful frame or, more precisely, the right frame. Once I find the right frame if I don’t feel a reason for the camera to move, I don’t think the camera should move. Even if I had all the money in the world and a crane standing by, or something else of the sort, I still wouldn’t use it because I think a camera movement is the moment when a camera is imposing a certain narrative, whether it’s an emotional narrative or it’s just adding an extra look to a scene. I often feel I don’t need that and so, even if I had the means, I would still keep the static frame. Here has a wonderfully quiet pace, allowing us to truly observe and listen. The question of tempo is an interesting one. The right tempo is at least as mysterious as the right frame. There is, of course, the tempo on set, that is to say, everything that is montage within the frame. Of course, you have to be very much in tune with the moment and you have to be very attentive in understanding whether a scene is too long or whether an action is eventually too fast or too slow, meaningful or not meaningful enough. That’s one kind of tempo, the tempo within the camera. The tempo in the editing process, once you start to put images next to each other, is a completely different way of sensing time. I am always in debt to my editor, Dieter Diependaele, because he teaches me, time and time again, to perceive the passing of time in the editing and to understand the meaning of a cut. This process is very natural to him, while for me it is much more natural to understand tempo on a set. That’s the mystery! The mystery is that he brings in his sensitivity about length, duration and, most importantly, the non-existing images between two frames, between images that I still don’t really understand. Even after making four films, for me that is still something truly magical. Could you elaborate on why you decided to shoot in 16 mm? I think it’s always an interesting question how much surface aesthetic a film can bear. To make a beautiful image, it’s no longer a challenge. We have amazing digital cameras and you can put a big LCD screen on set, you frame something, you can put the light and you can see what you’re doing. Every image I see is well executed and beautiful. The aesthetics of the surface is only one part of this choice. For me this process becomes really interesting when I start to understand the temporal and the spatial aspect of a frame, when I understand that we can show only ‘this’ part of an apartment, for instance, and it will tell me the same thing as 20 shots of this same apartment. We can only show this side of Stefan, but I trust that it will show all the different sides of Stefan. Here In terms of shooting time, the use of film is a constraint… Yes, and you have to think about it thoroughly. You can film endlessly with digital cinematography. You can shoot the same sequence over and over again. This is why digital cinematography may have both a beautiful side and a dangerous one. There are, in my opinion, great examples of filmmakers who have mastered digital cinematography and used it to their advantage ending up with things that were unimaginable beforehand. I also see the beauty of it. But I am still a bit – not in a nostalgic way – in love with this idea of the concentration. I like to say, “Hey, we’re all here now. Let’s do it. Let’s seize this moment!” Besides, I still get a lot of pleasure from knowing that what we just shot will be in the film. It’s not something that’s going to get cut out. It’s not something that’s going to disappear, or that’s going to be cut up in a million of pieces. We won’t make the film in the editing. We will face it in editing, but we won’t make it in editing. It’s made here, right now! Have you mostly used natural light for lighting the scenes? Here was made with a very modest budget, so the amount of light on set was always extremely limited. There were hardly any scenes where we really had to light a set. I’m not trying to give you a false impression either, but in general it was natural lighting and maybe one or two things added like a little bit extra from a side. I was frequently more concerned with blocking light than with adding light. We tried to go for what many DOPs with a bigger budget would achieve, using the least amount of light! During conversations, the ambient sound is kept low, creating a very intimate atmosphere; also, you use only a few musical scores. How did you work on the film’s soundscape? I find it very pleasant when it gets quiet in a film theatre, when I am surrounded by a lot of people and we are watching this giant screen, the light that falls on it and then it goes quiet and we can hear all the details. There is something very inviting about it. I like the fact that instead of the image it’s the sound in the first place that makes you conscious of the fact that you are not watching this alone. For me, it heightens the sensitivity and the intimacy with your immediate surroundings as well. I’ve always tried to reproduce a little bit of this kind of sensation in my films. When I made my first film, I remember seeing a boy coming to the screening with a big bucket of popcorn. By the end of the film, he still had a full bucket of popcorn. He didn’t dare to eat it because it would have made too much noise. I thought that it was very nice. It meant he was truly conscious of his own presence during the film, which doesn’t happen so often. We are frequently so overwhelmed by the image and the sound, by the idea of an immersive experience, which is something I enjoy as well, but I am truly moved when, all of a sudden, I become conscious of my own presence. A “quiet” film has this immediate effect for the audience, I guess. You dedicate the film to Teodor Corban, the legendary Romanian actor who died recently. We saw him in 12:08 East of Bucharest, 4Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Child’s Pose, Aferim!, to name a few. His performance in Here is heartbreaking. Teodor plays the mechanic in the film. He totally graced us with his presence. I had the feeling he was already ill when he came, but he didn’t speak about that. At the beginning, he refused to come and then we pushed a little bit and he accepted. He came to Brussels for two days and we tried to make it as comfortable as possible for him. He was just such a wonderful person. When I was about to complete the film, I showed it to individuals who are critical and have interesting things to say, and they all thought he wasn’t a professional because he was so natural! Here What aspect did you find most challenging in setting up this project? One of the biggest struggles for me was that I felt that this film needed a certain openness and a certain fluidity in its production process, but our finances and the limited resources didn’t really allow for the process I had in mind. My wish was that we could film for three, four days and then for a whole month we wouldn’t do anything and then we would film another day because the weather was nice or some actor was in town. Of course, it wasn’t like that. Here was like my previous films, much more structured and done in a much more concentrated shooting period. Somehow, I feel that I’m moving in a different direction. I would like to really approach this differently in my next film. This idea of a precise shooting period where everything needs to happen in, let’s say, 20, extremely concentrated days is a sort of limitation and restriction to me. Production is crucial indeed since, to a great extent, it determines what a film is, as you just said. It’s not the nicest subject to speak about, but I think it’s important we also speak about money. It’s important we speak about all these beautiful films and the staggering amount of money they cost to be made. Sometimes it really shocks me. The last two films I made, were both realised with a small budget. Still, I find it was a lot of money! The final cost for Here will be around 400,000 or 450,000 Euros. At the same time, it is nothing compared to, let’s say, a more regular feature film that would easily cost two million Euros. It’s really important to be conscious about money and how we spend it. Of course, this has a direct consequence on how you make the film. Production and money are one factor in deciding on the form and the content. I write with a limited budget in mind. For me, it’s a question of principle to make films with less money. This is why, already during the writing process, I try to bear in mind our means of production, finding out ways of doing it with fewer people, fewer locations, also letting go of the desire to control the surroundings. I’ll give you an example: if you want to film in any particular street in Brussels, it will undoubtedly be filled with vehicles of various colours. Any conventional film set will strive to regulate the street and remove all of the cars. I don’t want to make films like that anymore. I don’t want to control the surroundings. I want to take advantage of the surroundings perhaps. Production for me means investing a lot of time and energy in location scouting. It becomes more like creating with the world rather than against it. What does it mean to you today to make films? I struggled a lot in the first years of my film studies because I didn’t really understand why I was there. I had the feeling I was going through the motions, trying to finish things, then gradually I started to see film as an excuse to be curious. This curiosity was inextricably related to what it means to be a human being and to be open to the world. Making films actually allows you to preserve a sort of childlike interest for the world which you are told you have to give up in order to grow up and get a serious job. Film is such a beautiful excuse for not becoming that grownup, keeping on being a child forever, always wondering. To make a film means for me to engage with the things I do not understand. It’s a way to be in a very intimate relationship with what I do not understand and what I also do not necessarily wish to understand, like the wonder and the mystery!