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The Method to Make a Documentary Feel Like a Narrative Feature

Written by on May 2, 2014 

One of the most curious films I saw this year at Tribeca, Ne Me Quitte Pas, is a documentary that takes falls somewhere between an intervention by video and an observational doc in the mode of a Kelly Reichardt narrative. Above all, it’s a stunning and intimate portrait of a friendship between two men. Set in rural Belgium it tells the story of Marcel, a man who has fallen into a deep depression after loosing his wife, and Bob, an older, wise alcoholic who looks after him. Tracing this relationship over the course of two years directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden craft an unexpected blend of emotion, a rich real portrait that at times feels like a Belgium mumblecore film. After screening the film I was left with so many questions and when the opportunity came up to speak with Bakker and van Koevorden, I gladly accepted, and one can read our conversation below.

I have so many questions about the film. First, how did you encounter this story?

Niels van Koevorden: Well, we were having a drink and introduced to each other by a producer. We were both a bit drunk and we came to know that we were both raised in Belgium. Sabine told me she wanted to make a porn film about these big fat hormonal cows and I told her, “That’s fine, my father sells bull sperm so maybe we should work together.”

Sabine Lubbe Bakker: We have these roots in Belgium, and Belgium is a very specific country and we wanted to do something in Belgium. At that time the country did not have a government for 350 days — very normal in Belgium. It’s the heart of Europe that feels like Afghanistan sometimes and we tried to make a political film which we are very bad at. Then we also went to visit Bob, and he knows Bob already for 10 years; he made his first film 10 years ago. When we went there Bob had met Marcel and they had something going on which we thought was absolutely brilliant and then we were shooting already, trying things. And we shot the first scene when Bob is looking for his Tree of Life, and then he finds out this tree is chopped down and we thought, “Yeah.”

van Koevorden: Up until that point we kind of hesitated a little bit because we didn’t want to make a film about two alcoholics and we wanted the film to be about much more than that. So by time we got that tree we thought, “OK, this is what the film is about. This is the Belgium feeling we’re looking for, about dealing with failure and getting up again.”

Bakker: It’s an existential feeling; they are sitting there waiting. It demands so much to question yourself. Why do we want to be so successful and our base of life and freedom? So we felt that it demands these kinds of questions.

In terms of filmmaking, it feels like a narrative so much so I had to double check it was really playing in the documentary program. Is it really a documentary?

Bakker: Everyone wants to know, we wish we could write dialogue like that.

van Koevorden: The trick is time. A lot of those table scenes you see in those conversations, you see two minutes, but we’re really sitting there for the whole evening, or the whole morning.

Bakker: We’re filming all the time.

van Koevorden: We’re waiting for those two lines, and the decisions to not have any reference towards us and the camera. Sometimes you can feel a little of it, and that’s important sometimes to not close the whole wall.

Bakker: For us the intimacy with them, it’s real, we really love them and they really love us. Our presence was very OK.

van Koevorden: They’re super good characters, the way Bob looks is like something out of a western movie and Marcel has this good feel for character.

Bakker: His timing is good and his emotions are on the outside.

van Koevorden: They’re really nice to work with

How much time did you take to work with them before you started filming?

Bakker: We had to practice, we were very clumsy in the beginning.

van Koevorden: We had to figure out a way of working together because this was our first co-production.

Bakker: Normally we work with a crew, so he did the camera and I did the sound, and he’d never worked with these kinds of cameras before, so we had to find these things out ourselves. We just took our time, and we shot beautiful scenes with Marcel and his ex-wife, and we decided it would be much nicer to start after that point in the story. So we started after the point of the disaster.

van Koevorden: What you’d call research, we shot it all. We started shooting from the beginning.

Was that all on the edit room floor, and is the story told chronologically?

van Koevorden: It’s almost chronological and we had a house in the village, so every evening we’d sit down and review all the rushes and we’d decide what would definitely go into the edit and what we’d just kind of throw away.

The film is structured into unique chapters, starting with “The Tree, The Wife and the Suicide.”how did that come about?

Bakker: We liked that title.

van Koevorden: It’s a way of setting the vibe of the film, Marcel loses his wife, Bob looes his wife and they’re stuck together and go on this kind of a road trip. I think the thread throughout the film is how they relate to each other. In the beginning Bob takes care of Marcel and that gets to a point where it starts to shift and that’s important to us.

Bakker: We feel [the chapters] are more intuitive. We did the editing ourselves and it was the first structure we laid out, which is strange for documentary, but the chapters for us gave the edit some roughness. Just like the region is and this friendship is. It’s not polished. It’s not sweet. It’s a different thing. So we wanted the editing to be like this, but with the chapters we wanted to cut it, not to say something new starts.

van Koevorden: It gives a sense of the time we weren’t there. Sometimes those few seconds of black gives a sense that time passed a little bit.

About how long were you making the film?

van Koevorden: About two years of shooting and a year of editing.

The major question on my mind while watching the film is why Bob and Marcel agreed to be in it. I felt as if it was kind of a first step towards recovery?

Bakker: In some ways, yes. I think Bob thinks of himself as a wiseman, he’s got a lot of ideas and philosophies about life and I think it was a way for him to give some of those to the world.

van Koevorden: He’s been talking for 10 years about a book he wanted to write, so maybe this the kind of book he wanted to write.

Bakker: And he also says, for his grandchildren,“Now they know what kind of crazy grandfather they had.” For him, he’s not afraid of this. And for Marcel it was a nice way to spend some time to do this. He likes to perform, even when there’s not a camera.

van Koevorden: He’s a guy who you could put against a white wall, leave the camera on for three hours and he’ll tell you jokes and you’ll just cry your eyes out.

What do they think of the film – in terms of a legacy – they both have families?

van Koevorden: I think for Marcel, what we can see now is that it gave him another sense of value for himself. He came to Amsterdam for a screening and he’s standing in front of an audience that’s laughing and crying from being so open. It gave him a whole different sense of living. It helped him to move on a little bit.

Bakker: Both of them think it’s a very honest film. They laugh about it, they cry about it when they both see it. I think Bob also said, “You can see I drink too much, I spoke too much, but you can also see that my relationship with my son isn’t so good, but you can see that I put in an effort. You can also see I drink too much, but you can also see I try to help Marcel.” And he’s not ashamed of it.

There’s a few times when, especially towards the end when Marcel is driving drunk — was there any point where you had to intervene for their safety?

van Koevorden: [laughing] Wellm we had police on both sides of the road, and the car we rented….no.

Bakker: [laughing] No, no, no.

van Koevorden: Our last interviewer asked about that.

Bakker: We shot this in the south of Belgium, there’s not so many people, and we were surprised when a car passed by.

van Koevorden: You have to look at it this way. We were celebrating Marcel’s birthday and he says at one point, “I’m drunk, I’m driving home,” and we saw it was snowing and we didn’t have any snow in the film. So we said “OK, why not drive with him home to make sure he gets home safely and shoot a really beautiful scene.” And that’s what we did.

Bakker: Of course though there were moments, you know we are people and we are people making films. After carnival of course [Marcel] is really drunk and we put him in bed. Of course he’s in a coma, and we take care of his kids, and we check on them the next morning. Of course we do these things but we of course don’t film these things. It’s kind of like, we are human beings, so of course we’d help them. But the film is also about this ruthlessness, so when Marcel’s wife leaves him he’s set just to die, destroy himself, drink till he drops dead. He doesn’t want people to be nice to him and take care of him, because what, we’d be there for a week and then what happens next week?

van Koevorden: They demanded from us that we deal with them in the same way.

Bakker: I think we never felt that we were able to help another person like this.

van Koevorden: It’s a false expectation, you know if we do this for two years then the film is finished and what, they’re back on their feet? But for this carnival scene it felt like our responsibility because we knew that because we were there it made Marcel drink too much because he knew we were going to put his children to bed. We don’t say it didn’t happen if we weren’t there, but you can feel our presence meant something.

Was there any fear you were enabling this?

van Koevorden: No.

Bakker: I think for us it was a life-changing thing because we were dealing with stuff we normally wouldn’t have to deal with. We both love to drink, but we don’t cross this line. But what is that line? How do you deal with these things? When do you need help and when don’t you? When you make documentaries you question how you think about life and what you are making. I think its very harsh, but it’s part of life. Sometimes it’s okay not to be okay, and for us we were embracing the darker side of life, the tragedy.

How are these guys doing now?

van Koevorden: We just visited them last weekend and Marcel is now in the best rehab facility in Belgium for three months with groups and theater classes and he goes jogging everyday.

Bakker: He wants to stay there forever.

van Koevorden: We feel as if the conversation is changing into something good now, also through the film he has a view of his own life.

Bakker: He’s also scared of going back because he doesn’t have a job and all his friends drink too much, it’s very hard to stay on track.

van Koevorden: And Bob is maybe the best PR machine for the film because he’s emailing and calling.

Bakker: If you want to be friends with him on Facebook it’s possible. You can ask him any questions and he’ll write you back!

van Koevorden: We’re having our Belgium premiere in May with a big party and Bob is going to Morocco in a week for the film festival there.

Great. Anything else you want to mention about the film and what’s next?

Bakker: I think for us it was about taking time to make something that’s not easy, and it’s not easy of course without a lot of money. We’re proud of the way we made it. We were very free, nobody was checking in on us, but it’s also because we made it with the two of us so we didn’t have a big crew.

van Koevorden: We really challenged ourselves to not look at them as alcoholics, to dive into their world from their point of view.

Bakker: Not judge them and not pity them.

van Koevorden: I think the film also demands that from the audience and there’s so much more to see, it’s not just about a problem and a solution kind of thing. In America we get a different reaction I think because, maybe in America, Americans are more used to subject-driven documentaries that are easier to point out what they’re about. But there’s not too much question and answer.

It’s interesting because it really does feel like a narrative independent film.

van Koevorden: We had screenings in Amsterdam where audiences forget and when Bob and Marcel run up on stage they’re shocked because they didn’t want to deal with the realness of the characters because they were laughing.

Bakker: And then, do you pity them, what do you do when them. They’re easy with it, and they told us to be OK with it and to look at them as human beings.

What will you be exploring next?

Bakker: We’ve started several projects, and we want to keep it open. We started working on a film about Salsa Seniors, older dutch women that fall in love with younger Cuban men, which is very beautiful but also very sad and funny. We’ll see open people want to be. We’re also making something about seniors who are divorcing.

Strictly documentary?

van Koevorden: It takes time. This took us four years after you finish all the festivals. I think we’re very careful with that we’re going to give our lives to, so we’re not in a hurry.

Bakker: And we don’t have to be successful. If the next film is really shitty, it’ll be fine.

van Koevorden: Right, we’ll just have a drink on it.

Bakker: And drive home.

Well, don’t do that! But thanks again for talking with us.

van Koevorden: Thanks for the conversation.

Thanks for the great film.

Ne Me Quitte Pas screened at Tribeca Film Festival and is seeking U.S. distribution.

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