Emerging on the international cinema scene with a trio of tender yet emotionally exacting features in Violet, Hellhole, and Ghost Tropic, Belgian director Bas Devos has turned a new leaf with Here. The Berlinale prizewinner is a moviegoing experience as gorgeous as it is tranquil, following Stefan (Stefan Gota), a Romanian worker who begins forming connections with both nature and a bryologist named Shuxiu (Liyo Gong). The simplicity of the narrative is one of the film’s strong suits, Devos luxuriating in the gestures on display, from gifting soup to uncovering the ground beneath your feet.
I caught up with Devos at the U.S. premiere of Here at the 61st New York Film Festival, where we discussed the origins of the project, the film’s strong visual language, exuding a sense of compassion, the strange power of moss, and more. Ahead of the film’s theatrical run beginning this Friday at NYC’s Film at Lincoln Center courtesy Cinema Guild, check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: To start, how did this project initially come about?
Bas Devos: That’s a hard one. That’s the hardest one. I don’t really work from very clear narrative ideas; they’re not necessarily what starts me. It’s more vague general themes or things that interest me that I look for ways of combining. In this film it was a strange combination of something very large on a macro scale about the labor movement in Europe, the way that there is an enormous, invisible Romanian community in Brussels that I didn’t know. And that got my attention because I know some Romanians. Stefan, who is in the film, is a friend of mine. Knowing that I wanted to make something got me really thinking about this. How did he end up here? Why Brussels? And then you get into this whole story of labor migration––the specificity of labor migration in Europe where you are free to move around, but you still see a large movement from east to west and not vice-versa. Which has very deep consequences for how, politically, the European Union is run.
So thinking about this, but really not knowing how to make a narrative out of it without getting making a “migrant film”––that I felt uncomfortable with. And then combining it with very small thoughts and small ideas, like soup, and being interested in the natural world, and my interest really piqued through a book I read by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s called Gathering Moss. Then, through her book, getting in contact with bryologists, and someone who took me out into the world and showed me like, wow, it’s everywhere. This macro and micro world started to come together and a small narrative line emerged. That’s the way. It doesn’t go the other way.
All of your features have such a strong visual language to them and, in Here, so many shots are stuck in my mind––the scene at the restaurant or where they bend down to the ground. When it comes to your approach, are you finding that on-set or are you coming prepared knowing exactly what you want? And in the editing process, how do you find the rhythm and patience knowing the audience will stay with you and luxuriate in the atmosphere?
To begin with the last question: I really don’t know. I don’t know if what I’m doing will keep up the attention span of an audience. I mean, I know it in the moment. Like, on set, I think that’s probably the only thing I do. I really try to sense, “Okay, this is what is happening now. This is here. It’s real. It’s here. Does it reach me? Am I still with them?” If the answer is yes, then I know that that shot in its entirety, it will work. But whether it will work in a feature-length film and you have scenes before and after, I really don’t know. And that’s where editing becomes… all of a sudden it’s like another language that you need to speak. And I work with a friend of mine who has done all my films, Dieter Diependaele, a Flemish editor, and I think that is his greatest gift. His best gift is that he can construct a new kind of time with the time that I experience, that I’ve seen on set.
Basically, editing for us: it’s always a process of a total film. We don’t edit sequences. We have to edit the whole film and then we watch it and then we go, “Oh my God, it’s so bad. Why doesn’t this work?” And he has taught me not to panic because it doesn’t work because the timing is off. His strength is really to know that the rhythm of the film is already there. You just have to find it. And we find it by skimming. Literally, sometimes, it’s just a couple of frames we skim off here and this cut feels nice. Sometimes I think of when you read a book, when you flip a page, there’s an anticipation that if a cut feels the same, it feels good. You feel something new. We search for that feeling and we trust a lot on that feeling. Like, “Yes, this cut feels nice. It does something to my body. That’s nice.”
Just visually, we don’t think about it too much upfront. We try to speak in very general lines. The materiality of film was big. We did a lot of research in digital cinematography. Literally at the last moment we ditched it for film, because I was under the impression this is a film about the small world. So we need a lot of definition and to see the details. I also felt that the digital photography, it literally sucked the life out of something that is alive, which it doesn’t have to do. I just felt it like that. And so I think there are ways of working with it and we didn’t find the right way. And film, just especially 16mm: it has this materiality that… you can’t get around the word “organic.”
So the choice for film stock and the general choices about the way that we come close to someone and the way that we take space in order to show surroundings––this is something that we spoke about. Like zooms without actually zooming in. Step by step we come closer, step by step we move out. The way that these lenses work in a microscope. But that’s it. Then, on set, we create a space where there is enough time to hit just the right spot.
Liyo Gong and Bas Devos at the 61st New York Film Festival. Photo by Sean DiSerio.
With your past films, there’s definitely an empathy for your characters, but they are certainly going through more trauma than the ones here. Was the kind of newfound warmness of this film a reaction to anything you’ve done before?
Not necessarily to something I’ve done before. I feel myself changing. Filmmaking is so intertwined with living that the way you change and the way you start thinking about the world in different ways––it finds its way into film. I have really been looking in my personal life and, in films, I have been looking for narratives that are different and that talk about a way of being together in a non-violent way. Whereas so many of the narratives that we are bombarded with have violent events. Whether it’s emotional violence or just physical violence, it seems to define what human beings are. We bash each other’s heads in, we make each other cry. And I think, “Wow, that’s a narrow way of looking at what human beings are,” because we are much more than that. We are also capable of compassion and of sharing and of creating a space in which people feel welcome and safe. And I think we need these kinds of spaces; I think they are relatively rare.
And so I think: yes, the cinema could be that kind of space where we are challenged to look at different kinds of narrative. So I’ve always been looking for these different kinds of narratives, but it’s just crystallizing more and more, I think, the older I’m getting. And also in finding films, films I like––they set out to look for these different kinds of narratives.
Tied to that, I get very frustrated when people’s ideas of the best films of the year have to boast some sort of dramatic tension or violence or extensive runtimes. So watching your films and many other filmmakers that I admire can be rejuvenating. As a filmmaker, how exciting is it for you to push against those notions of what’s perceived to be “an important film.”
Yeah, no, it’s not exciting. It’s really scary, I find. Because it’s hard to find references. You feel a little bit alone. We have state-funded films, so you have to present your films at film commissions, and this is just people looking at you and they have a very clear expectancy of all the films. And then you come there with something that goes against the grain of what they expect and I was afraid, in a way. Am I confident enough to say, “There’s a film here. It’s about a guy handing out soup, but there’s a film there.” I was super-pleasantly surprised that they saw it. They saw it and they were like, “Yeah, there’s a film there.” And along the way I have been feeling that. The way that people perceive the film: it makes me feel way less alone than when I started out with this project. I’m very insecure.
Something that strengthened me, while finishing the film, I read a short essay by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” And I read and I was like: this is the film. She’s arguing for different narratives. It starts out with the idea that the first human artifact was not a weapon, but a carrier bag to bring home leaves, nuts, and berries that people picked because that was the food we eat. And the first thing we did was to share food. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s my film.” And this was the ’80s. And I was like, “She wrote it then so I’m very late [Laughs] but still we haven’t seen so many of these other narratives.” She also says it is hard to make a film about people picking berries. It’s way easier to make a film about somebody bashing in the head of the mammoth and talking about it around the campfire. There is so much value, I think, in the narrative of picking the berries and storing and sharing the berries. That’s what makes us human.
So for the soup and then the moss elements, are they so specific that it had to be about this? Or were there other interchangeable ideas you had? When did you know they would be the perfect conduit for the narrative flow?
I think it’s hard… I’ve never thought about it like that. But when I was getting into moss, I was getting really into the specificity of moss. What I like so much about it is: the way you experience these plants is so much different from the way you experience higher plants. If you walk through a forest, you move through it. But in order to see moss, you have to stop, you have to sit down, you have to bring it up close and magnify it. So there is tension involved. This attentiveness is what triggered me in the first place in seeing moss; it is something that escapes you. But once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it and then you see it’s everywhere. So it has this strange power of world-enlargement. You are not with moss and then you are. Then you’re never alone again. This experience, it’s very real. It’s not, like, ephemeric or poetic. It’s real. It’s growing between the cracks of the pavement. I can show you different kinds. That triggered me.
In terms of casting, you mentioned you are friends with Stefan. Had he acted before, and what conversations did you have? His performance seems so natural.
He is not a classically trained actor. He went to a theater school as a theater maker and not as an actor. And he has a strange story. He ended up in Belgium the way many Romanians do: a bit floating through Europe, doing all kinds of different work, being schooled as a physical therapist. Then he was like, “Yeah, I want something else.” And he went to study theater when he was already late in his 20s. So he finished school two years ago or even less, and he had been in smaller roles in my two previous films. I was just like, “Yeah, I would like to do something with Stefan.”
There’s something about his presence and about his strange feminine masculinity. He is very kind and soft and gentle, but he has this very male body, a very masculine body. I wanted to hang out with him and I started speaking to him about… actually, I devised this sort of small scheme in order to just spend time with him. We started interviewing Romanians in Brussels and I took him out as a translator. I got to feel, also, more about how he was thinking about certain things.
The aspect ratio of the film is actually more square than one might think. How did you decide on that to inform your story?
My two previous films were 4:3. And for this film it was just in the last days of preparation, [cinematographer] Grimm Vandekerckhove and I were just speaking about: “Okay, why this choice? What am I saying?” It seems to come so logically for us to say 4:3. Why? Then he proposed a more photographic format, something that would be maybe closer to what you see through a microscope, which is of course round and blurry. It’s a photographic format and it’s not so much of a cinematographic format. It’s just nice that it adds a little bit of this way of seeing that’s different. Also it’s mainly to trigger us to see things in a different way.
And it also really helps, I think, in the film––if you make a close-up, you fill the screen. And if you make a large shot, you have so much surrounding, you can literally see the space that surrounds somebody. It works completely different in the scope format. So I think because we were thinking so much about this this, distance and being close, that it also felt right.
A decade ago you were at New Directors/New Films and now you’re in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival. How does that feel as a filmmaker?
I mean, it’s a little bit embarrassing to say, but for years I’ve been watching the lineup here and just seeing it as a sort of a reference for where filmmaking is going. And then to be part of it is like, wow, yeah––I’m honored. I’ve been to large festivals, but somehow this is special. It’s nice. And if I just look at the whole lineup, not just the Main Slate, it approaches very much the way I feel cinema. You won’t find many crappy films. There’s no filler. A lot of the larger festivals, they have to be more adventurous in finding world premieres. That burden, it’s not so much here. They can just focus on good films. Yeah, I’m not somebody who likes to speak about that so much, but I’m proud.
Here opens in theaters on Friday, February 9.