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Whether short or feature, similar emotional paths: Jaco Van Dormael’s cinema

Blog
Whether short or feature, similar emotional paths: Jaco Van Dormael’s cinema

15.03.2021

Text: Merdan Çaba Geçer
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

Magical touch to realism, complex and parallel narrations, a one of a kind sense of humour... Belgian director, who loves to explore themes of life, death, dream and consciousness, is a guest of this year’s 17th Akbank Short Film Festival.

The roots of Van Dormael’s cinema actually goes back to the first day he opens his eyes to this world. Almost strangled to death by the umbilical cord at birth, the doctors said that the lack of oxygen might result in mental challenges. That luckily did not happen, but this traumatic incident affected him deeply. It is no wonder that he keeps getting inspiration from the experiences of physically and mentally challenged people, and does that with due regard. He frequently reflects his admiration towards their “talents to live and celebrate life”.

As widely known, childhood and innocence are among strong themes that Van Dormael has explored throughout his career. Before his adventures in cinema, he was unsurprisingly working as a clown, and even as a producer at children’s theatres. After striding through European grounds, discovering new cultures during his youth, he studied cinema at INSAS and Louis Lumière College and then shot his first short feature Maedeli la brèche at 1981.

A talent whose first short feature was awarded by the Academy 

Maedeli la brèche featured Mathieu, who was left with a relative to explore rural life and little Maedli who dreamed to be a boy. Van Dormael’s talent was discovered across the ocean and he won the Honorary Foreign Film Award at the Student Academy Awards presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There began Van Dormael’s fruitful production process and he shot successive important shorts during the 80’s.

The 14 minute documentary Stade 81 (1981) focused on the Paralympic Games featuring athletes with different challenges. It was followed by L'imitateur (1982), which looked closer at two mentally challenged individuals, and another documetary work Sortie de secours (1983). His favorited work during this period was È pericoloso sporgersi’ (1984). The film was about a child who was put in a difficult situation, and was asked to make an impossible decision. È pericoloso sporgersi was awarded by various festivals in Europe.

Besides the De boot musical he shot in 1985, his other works such as Where I'm Headed (1999), La ceinture (2006), Eole (2010), The Shape (2019) and especially Lumière et compagnie (1995) should also be mentioned. He was one of the forty directors who shot short films using the original Cinématographe camera invented by the Lumière brothers. These shorts were constrained by three rules: no longer than 52 seconds, no synchronized sound, and no more than three takes.

Transition to feature, and two unforgettable films: “Toto le héros” and “Le huitième jour”

After giving a six year break after De boot, Jaco Van Dormael, created his first feature film Toto le héros in 1991. Frequently using flashbacks and stream of consciousness technique, the film, just like his later work Mr. Nobody, touched upon the possibilities life may bring and their possible consequences. The international fame this film brought was quite something; it was honoured by authorities such as Cannes, César, European Film Awards and BAFTA.

Van Dormael was starting to be recognized as one of the most exciting talents of his generation. He took this rise to a new level with Le huitième jour (1996) that earned him a Gloden Globe nomination. Being a box Office success, the film told the coinciding and intersecting stories of Georges (Pascal Duquenne) with Down syndrome and unhappy businessman Harry (Daniel Auteuil).

A big budget experimental film: “Mr. Nobody” and after 

Maybe because high expectations can lead to heavy feelings, Van Dormael did not shoot another feature film during the thirteen years after Le huitième jour. He created two short features and a television series episode during this period.

After a preparation time of nearly six years, the most expensive Belgian film to date (37 million Euro budget), Mr. Nobody met the audiences. The film, which he describes as “An experimental movie on endless possibilities everyone can encounter” marked a new verge in his career in the sense that it was his first and only work in English, and it featured the Hollywood star Jared Leto as the lead act. Although criticised as a scattered work by some, the film created its own fanbase as well.

The director’s next move was the most experimental work of his filmography, Kiss & Cry (2011). Giving the viewer an extraordinary experience by merging animation with dance performed by hands alone, led the way to its sequel, Cold Blood. In 2014, he created the sensational comedy Le tout nouveau testament, that earned him another Golden Globe nomination. Put in short, the film imagined God as a grumpy man living in Belgium; who after his daughter Ea gets mad at him, texts everyone on earth on their dates of deaths. This epic story shaking the norms and values, was put on the records as a joyful watch.

Through Akbank Short Film Festival, Jaco Van Dormael, who is currently busy with the post production of his documentary project Europe - C 19, will be sharing his experiences with filmmakers and filmmakers of the future.

 

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