In Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity, author Philip Mosley makes a salient and illuminating re-evaluation of a bifurcated Belgian cinema, not only through the reality of a federal state characterized by a decentralized government and regional autonomy, but also irreparably marked by occupation and war, and divided by a cultural heterogeneity that has led to an inherently “split screen” national cinema. Mosley traces the evolution of Belgian cinema from the nascency of the medium itself in order to illustrate the integrality of the country’s contributions to the development of the technology, citing the independent works of two native magic lantern pioneers: Etienne-Jules Robertson from Liège who developed the Fantascope which integrated a sliding carriage that enabled the projection of a rapid succession of images to simulate motion, and Joseph Plateau from Brussels whose experimental research on the psycho-optical principle of persistence of vision – the eye’s momentary retention of an image after the object is no longer visible – led to his development of the phenakistiscope, a device that simulated motion through the rotation of a series of slightly varying images on a disk (a technology that artists such as Jean-Baptiste Madou would subsequently integrate to create animation). Furthermore, with the country’s proximity to France coupled with the mediation of shared language, the Belgian film industry would develop rapidly from the advent of the Lumière films in 1895 through the cross-pollination of technological advancements, film production, and even artists (such as Jacques Feyder, Charles Spaak, Jean Servais, and Eve Francis) between the two countries. Ironically, silent film proved to be an ideally suited medium in transcending the country’s linguistic barriers, a liberation from the limitations of regionality and biculturalism that would enable significant advancement in the development of the film industry and that, however, would prove to be short lived with the advent of the First World War.
An integral aspect in the evolution of Belgian cinema that continues to provide a relevant voice and profound influence in contemporary cinema is in the arena of documentary filmmaking. Ironically, this aesthetic for capturing the quotidian may be traced back from a more nebulous outgrowth of colonialism and propaganda, as missionaries gravitated towards the universal language of film images as a tool for religious conversion, and in the postwar era of austerity and resource shortages, as an incentive towards national unity and reinforcement of exerted control over the Belgian Congo (a region that proved even more valuable with the advent of the atomic age for its uranium mines). This ethnographic aesthetic may be seen, not only in the films of pioneering documentarians Charles Dekeukelaire and Henri Storck, but also in the tone poems of Thierry Knauff, the cultural investigations of Thierry Michel, the meditative, essay films of Boris Lehman, and the wordless, migratory landscape films of Chantal Akerman. Moreover, the convergence of native documentary filmmaking towards experimental rather than conventional cinema can be seen in the works of filmmakers such as Storck, Lehman, Knauff, and Akerman, a reflection of what Mosley describes as the inherently artisanal (and consequently, more intimate) nature of Belgian national cinema.
Similarly, this aesthetic towards capturing the essence of reality – a creative philosophy that is in integrally rooted in Flemish art – is also manifested in the evolution of social realism in Belgian cinema, particularly in the Wallonia region where a creative (as well as ideological) movement with predominant socio-political themes was propelled by a combination of incisive, pioneering documentaries, the introduction of incentive funding (as a means of re-invigorating the decimated film industry), and subsequently, the influence of British Free Cinema that spurred the advent of an indigenous Fugitive Cinema. Ironically, inasmuch as financial backers (often regional administrators and local industries) sought to project a more positive national image of postwar recovery, industrial progress, and immigrant assimilation through commissioned and subsidized filmmaking, what resulted from these panoramic surveys often proved to be less than ideal social portraits. Of particular note is Paul Meyer’s seminal film, From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom on the lives of immigrant workers and their families in the coal mining town of Borinage (Storck would earlier document the appalling living conditions in the same region in Misère au Borinage). Originally commissioned by Ministry of Public Instruction as a means of illustrating the well-adjusted integration of Italian immigrant families into Belgian society, Meyer, who had already run afoul with authorities over his earlier, controversial short film, Klinkaart – a film that uncannily anticipates Bresson’s cinema, depicting the exploitation and assault of a young female brick worker – would be forced into insoluble debt when the ministry withdrew funding for making an uncompromising film that revealed the underlying reality of the abject working, domestic, and social conditions faced by the immigrants. Within this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Wallonian filmmakers (and seeming heir to Meyer’s sociopolitical cinema), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne would subsequently revisit the issue of immigrant assimilation (this time, within the relevant, contemporary framework of racism and illegal immigration) in their first feature film, La Promesse.
It is interesting to note that throughout the evolution of Belgian cinema, the reality captured on film is not only rooted in the physical, but also in the interiority of the imagination. In illustrating the (eccentric) interpenetration between states of consciousness and psychological irreconcilability, the aesthetics of magical realism have become an indigenous aspect of Belgian cinema, as reflected in the films of André Delvaux (most notably, in The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short and Rendez-vous à Bray), Roland Verhavert, Ivo Michiels, and Rik Kuypers’ expressionistic Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor, and Jaco van Dormael (in particular, Toto, the Hero), as well as in the provocative and sophisticated animated films of Raoul Servais. Inevitably, what emerges from this fused state of bifurcated realities is not only the integration of the aesthetic legacy and sense of innovation and wonder achieved by the optical illusions of the precursory magic lanterns, but also a metaphorical social reflection rooted in the mundane reality of a complex native identity engendered by the country’s fractured identity and biculturalism.
Acquarello, 2006 [reprinted]