A multiple award winner at Cannes, Moscow, Begium tells the story of bored post-office worker Matty (Barbara Sarafian). Forty-one years old and supporting her three children, Matty lives in a small flat whilst her husband decides whether to divorce her or return to the family. An accident with twenty-one year old ‘Viking’ truck driver, Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), leads to a tenuous relationship threatened by revelations about his past. I spoke to Delnaet and director, Christophe van Rompaey, about the film.
What were the challenges that the twenty day shoot presented? The whole film was shot on location in places like an old seventies apartment block — how difficult was it to shoot in places like that?
Jurgen: Well, the apartment was very small. Ten days inside that type of apartment with twenty people was a challenge; a challenge to stay calm and have respect for everybody’s wishes but it was okay. It was real, that was what the film was about, that was what those scenes were about, people living in very small environments; living inside their heads maybe and having trouble with their emotions, being locked in. So that helped us to play as natural as possible. One other big challenge of course was to learn to drive the truck because I wasn’t a truck driver before shooting this film, so I had to learn to drive a beast like that in two weeks. It was very interesting.
What about the look of the film? The lighting was very distinct. A lot of colour seemed to be drained out of the first half of the movie, interrupted by bright colours such as Johnny’s yellow lorry and the glass of red wine that Matty drinks in the bath. What were you trying to achieve with the colour contrast in the film?
Christophe: I’m glad you noticed. Like you said, it was a very intense shoot, we only had twenty days. We discussed upfront with the DOP what the story would be about and how we would show that visually without being too literal, it had to feel natural. The story we wanted to tell is somebody who is emotionally dead in the beginning but slowly comes alive again and that is what we did with the subtle actions of colour. But then again, it had to feel natural; it shouldn’t be a stylised film because that would take away the authenticity in some sort of way. The main goal was to tell a realistic story about real people, but subtly we wanted to give the audience ‘up’ moments with colour gradually coming in as she becomes more and more alive. Luckily, because of the story, we were able to shoot it more or less chronologically. That was good for the actors and also good to give an overview of where we are in the story, we could add something [to the scenes], and that helped.
What was it like working with Barbara? The relationship between Matty and Johnny is so natural, how did that play out as you were shooting?
Jurgen: That’s the stroke of luck that sometimes happens. We matched on the screen. There was chemistry, you can’t explain it.
Christophe: You could see it during the casting. Fundamentally the big challenge was telling a story about real people. We took a long time casting, looking for the right people. Once that was finished it all came together because they were all perfect. Barbara, it’s a bit of a weird story because in Belgium she was not that well known. She had worked in the past in some international movies and because of that in Belgium they didn’t call her because they thought, ‘Oh she’s only working abroad with big names blah, blah, blah.” She was just sitting at home and nobody called her. Since we were looking for people with accents from that area, we called her. She came in for casting and that’s how we met. It just came naturally, she’s a brilliant actress.
Is the big family dinner as important a part of domestic life in Belgium as it seems to be in the film?
Jurgen: Yes, it’s very important. It’s important to have dinner together, but dramatically speaking it’s a very interesting setting, because you have all the family together around the table and things can happen.
Christophe: Everybody hears what everyone else is saying and sees how everybody else is reacting. I love eating scenes (Laughs). Watching them is fantastic but shooting them can be really, really hard. From the morning to the evening the actors have to eat the same things at the same moment every time and look like they like it (Laughs), and that’s actually very hard. For us dramatically, it was a nice recurring event to use.
The main goal was to tell a realistic story about real people, but subtly we wanted to give the audience ‘up’ moments with colour gradually coming in as she becomes more and more alive.
With the way the film was shot, with hand-held cameras and its general mood, did you look to any British directors like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh for inspiration?
Christophe: They ask me that question a lot. I like the work of Mike Leigh, I like Kaurismaki, I also like Ridley Scott. It’s probably some subconscious influence, but we were not focused on that or watching films during the preparation. One of the big challenges for me in every project is, I call it, ‘Finding the angle of telling the story.’ In this case, for me, it was pretty clear we had to tell her story. Once that’s decided it automatically dictates what you do with your camera. You’re not telling your audience things that your main character doesn’t know if you tell the story through her. It immediately tells you where to put your camera. It was all hand-held and we shot it with one lens to be able to create this homogenic world of her point of view.
Could you talk about the role that fate plays in the movie? Matty makes a conscious choice to start the relationship with Johnny, yet beneath that there is the youngest daughter with the tarot cards. It seemed to be an interesting contrast.
Christophe: I didn’t want to have a definite point of view on it; saying that everything is pre-destined or not. I like to leave that question a bit open, but it’s interesting to give each of your characters one of those points of view. The girl with the tarot says this is your past and this is what’s going to happen. And that’s the interesting thing, Johnny and Matty had to meet to be able to move on with their lives. What happens afterwards is not really relevant, but they had to have this meeting, this encounter, to change and evolve in their own lives. It’s hard when you see films and they force a moral on you, we definitely didn’t want to tell a moralising story. What do you think, Jurgen?
Jurgen: (Laughs) I believe Moscow, Belgium is a very interesting synthesis of life. If you want to talk about my personal view on fate, I believe things happen and then it’s up to you to react to what happens. Maybe that’s not fate, or maybe the way you react to what happens is also destined or pre-destined, I don’t know.
Christophe: We could philosophise a bit on this.
Finally, what are your future projects?
Christophe: Well, everybody thinks I’m really, really busy so I don’t get any phone calls (Laughs). I was supposed to shoot a film this winter which didn’t happen because the financing wasn’t in place. I am working in a very early stage with the same screenwriters on another story which is now in a treatment stage and we just need some money to make it into a script; nothing concrete at the moment.
Jurgen: I’m doing a theatre project in Flanders, I’m on tour and I’ll be participating in a few film projects.
Moscow, Belgium is on limited release from 24th April.