To cinéastes fixated on tabulating statistics like sports fanatics, the Dardennes often come up as examples of unerring consistency, like a player with an impeccable xG rate in soccer: for their nine appearances in the official competition at Cannes, they’ve left with seven major awards, including two Palme d’Ors. And although it could be said they’re not currently in the finest fettle of their career, generations of filmmakers working in a realist vein still bear their influence: watch several films in a row at any big festival, especially from newer directors, and it’s ever-apparent this is Jean-Pierre and Luc’s world, and we’re only living in it.
Tori and Lokita, now beginning its US rollout, shows their dramatic and narrative gifts very much in evidence, maintaining their appeal to audiences otherwise unconcerned with the latest developments in world cinema. When I saw the film at Cannes myself, it was another reminder of how their work holds a room, with gasps at climactic plot developments punctuating a pregnant silence, the sort only noticeable when sitting with a large group of people.
African migrants Tori and Lokita (played by newcomers Pablo Schils and Joey Mbundu) are their focal characters this time, enduring profound hardship and exploitation as they fall into the clutches of a local chef moonlighting as a drug dealer; his unambiguous evil is wrought especially on Lokita, whom he manipulates with promises of identity papers that will protect her from deportation. But further scorn is directed towards the European asylum system, initiating the circumstances for outcomes like this to occur. Yet as ever with the Dardennes, the possibility of grace is a salve––a belief in transcendence that manages to exist seamlessly in their realist accounting of the world.
We caught up with the brothers on Zoom, where they answered my questions in French with the assistance of an interpreter.
The Film Stage: Where did the initial spark and impetus for this film come from?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It was a report in a newspaper about immigrant children, and the fact that there were hundreds of them that were disappearing and nobody knew where. We think that some of them ended up in Great Britain, and maybe a small portion went back to their countries of origin. But most of them were heisted by criminal organizations and then absorbed that way. And reading that article really, really upset us, thinking that there were hundreds of children disappearing and nobody was really doing anything about it, despite the fact that we are in a democracy. That’s really what lit the flame for the film.
Leading from that, I suspect many details in the script came from your customary in-depth research process. Who did you conduct interviews with? I was also curious about how that enormous, clandestine weed farm found its way into the story.
Luc Dardenne: We did a lot of research and investigations. Of course, anything that was really of a criminal or drug-related nature, the police gave us the information. In terms of the minors: we couldn’t talk to them directly because of their underage status. But we had many discussions with psychologists, doctors, lawyers, etc. We also gained information from a magazine that is for adolescents and children, with articles by psychologists, doctors, and the like where they talk to minors.
And one of the crucial points is the solitude that these children and adolescents experience––because it used to be that the father would come over, and then he would set things up and bring the family along. But now they’re coming unaccompanied, and they suffer from this profound loneliness, and that’s a big problem. Those interviews gave us an enormous amount of information.
Jean-Pierre: For the marijuana farms: we knew they existed. Most people know that they exist. But in terms of how it functions and how they’re constructed, the police were the ones that gave us that information.
Once you found Joely Mbundu and Pablo Schils [the young actors playing Lokita and Tori, respectively], did their abilities furnish key details in the script? I’m thinking particularly of Joely singing to entertain the customers at the restaurant, and the reprise of the song in the very final scene. As well as Pablo’s extraordinary cycling skills.
Luc: Well, it was already in the script that they sang, or that Tori did his own stunts and was very physical and athletic. But he brought to the film an enormous vivacity and energy that was beyond what we had even scripted. So of course that developed the character further.
I’d describe Tori and Lokita as perhaps your angriest film to date, yet still in a subtle manner. Would you agree with that characterization? The anger is directed at the parties abusing the children as they attempt to subsist in their new home, in addition to outside the primary narrative, towards the injustice of the asylum system.
Jean-Pierre: Yes, I think that’s true––that’s what we said at the beginning of the interview. When we read that article, it completely revulsed us and upset us to a point where, of course, I would say that we are the angriest with this film. Those are the most fragile people in our society.
Moving outside the film for a moment, I’d be interested to hear your perspective on the newer generation of Belgian filmmakers, such as Lukas Dhont, Laura Wandel, and Emmanuelle Nicot. Would you agree that they’ve taken your style and emphases in a different direction: one less overtly political, but more sensitive to issues of gender and sexuality?
Luc: Well, they they have expressed that they feel a link to us. And that’s great. However, each of them has a very strong personality. And the one that we know best is Laura Wandel. We’re co-producing her next film and we know the others a little bit less, but we feel very close to them. And the fact that Belgium is producing these filmmakers as such a small country is really wonderful, and we’re very happy about that.
Luc, you’ve maintained a strong link to philosophy amidst your work as a director, and have spoken and also published texts on the philosophical analogues to the films. What thinkers or arguments from the discipline fed into Tori and Lokita? All your films, even the last two––this and Young Ahmed––which I’d argue are quite distinct, can be enriched in light of Levinas’s concept of the “Other.”
Luc: In these last two films, there’s less of an influence of Levinas, who is still very nourishing to me as a philosopher. They are not dealing with the question of “do we kill or not kill.” In having to face the issue of murder, they ask “how are we going to get along? How are we going to go forward and how can we help each other?” So that’s a little different, you know. With Ahmed, he’s a fanatic. And the problem with fanaticism is that you can’t change. They don’t change because the cause is so strong, so there’s no going backwards. So the issue in that film became, “How are we going to make him pivot? How are we going to make him change?” We needed to find something beyond another individual, because that was not going to alter anything. So that’s why there was the climactic “fall.” When you’re a fanatic, others can’t come in. They can’t enter into your universe.
Moving back towards the practicalities of your work and your methodology, are you still able to create spontaneity, following decades of work produced in a similar manner? Has the division of labor altered between the two of you, or is there more assurance than ever in how you approach things?
Jean-Pierre: [In English] It’s difficult! In fact, we don’t know really. We hope that the flexibility is still there. And a kind of innocence. But each time you try to be in the situation as if it were the first time. [Back into French] To a certain extent we feel that. But it isn’t the first time we’re making a movie, so we can’t really see whether, you know, that alters it or not. I can’t really answer that. However, it is a question that I ask, and I think Luc asks himself as well. We don’t want to rely on formulaic options for the film: things that we’ve already said, things we would repeat, etc. For the sharing of the work, the division of labor: since we made La Promesse, it’s been basically more or less the same.
Finally, I’ll ask a very simple question. Have you started thinking about what you’re doing next? If you haven’t pinpointed it yet, or you’re just basking in this latest film, that’s okay! Yet I was curious if the wheels are turning on the next project.
Luc: We are indeed working on something. And I can say that it’s going to focus on a character that belongs to our universe. And it’s going to speak of a certain reality in Europe.
Tori and Lokita opens at NYC’s IFC Center on Friday, March 24 and will expand.