Pierre Drouot, the avuncular figure who took over as managing-director of the Flanders Audio-Visual Fund (VAF) in 2005, admits his vision for film in Flanders owes a lot to the example set by the Danish film industry.
How does a small country devise a meaningful film policy' As head of the VAF, Drouot has long been pondering this question. He kept coming back to Denmark.
"We are six million with a small language. Our audience does not accept dubbed movies. American films are in English with subtitles. There is a difference and maybe that will enable us to create a strong relationship with the audience in Flanders."
The Danes have Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible of European cinema. The Flemish temperament, Drouot concedes, is "not that iconoclastic". Nonetheless, he sees evidence that film-making in Flanders is on the up and expresses confidence the Flemish can find their equivalents to Denmark's "Vinterbergs, von Triers and Susanne Biers".
Drouot is not a businessman trying to foist ideas from other fields onto cinema. He is a film-maker. Once the enfant terrible of film-making in Flanders himself, he started in the business in his early twenties and his producing credits include Jaco Van Dormael's Toto The Hero as well as films and documentaries from Andre Delvaux, Raoul Servais and Harry Kumel. He has also directed his own movies.
As a maverick, he has always been a supporter of new talent. When he took on the job at the VAF, he was coming back into the film world after a decade of retirement in the south of France. He is now on a mission to help young talent and kick-start a new wave of film-making in Flanders.
"We (at the VAF) have two different and complementary objectives," he says of his current strategy. First, the VAF aims to provide Flemish film-goers with movies they want to see. "If you were making movies that did not have a connection with the local audience, politicians would become tired of giving public money." The VAF must also ensure film-makers from Flanders have the opportunity to reach an international audience. "The second part of our job is to put two, three, four or five Flemish film-makers on the European and world map."
Drouot expresses pride that the VAF supported such visionary films as Fien Troch's debut feature Someone Else's Happiness and Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth's Khadak. He describes the Mongolia-set (and Mongolian-language) Khadak as "the most beautiful film I have seen in recent years and the best Flemish film of the last decade".
Despite its high international profile, Khadak did not set the box office alight in Belgium. Nonetheless, it is a film that sets artistic standards Drouot wants to see other film-makers try to emulate. "Khadak is poetry. How many people read poetry'"
Young Flemish film-makers are already beginning to cite Khadak as a point of reference. For example, Vanja d'Alcantara, who is presenting her first feature project The Steppes at Rotterdam's CineMart later this month, acknowledges the influence that Brosens and Woodworth have had on her own ideas. She admits that in The Steppes, she will be trying to emulate the "impressively ambitious" sweep of Khadak by making "small, culturally specific events" seem "universal".
The VAF does not insist the film-makers it supports work only in Flemish. The fund has already backed Troch's second feature, The Unspoken, despite the young director's decision to shoot in French.
Drouot has been notably successful in winning government support for his policies. In the summer of 2007, the Flanders cultural affairs minister Bert Anciaux announced extra financing would be made available to the VAF. The goal was to double feature film production in Flanders by 2010. Anciaux provided an immediate one-off investment of $3.7m (EUR2.5m) to tide over the fund, which had come under strain as a result of the production boom started by the Belgian tax shelter system. In the long term, Anciaux also promised to increase substantially the VAF's annual budget (which in 2007 was $18.4m).
"The main problem was to normalise the relationship," Drouot says of VAF-government negotiations. "When I came in, the relationship with the minister was not that positive."
After discussions which Drouot describes as "frank but also polite and friendly", the VAF defied sceptics by winning the extra state funding. Without the VAF, film-making in Flanders would all but disappear. For better or worse, the industry remains dependent on public funding, says Drouot. "Some crazy people would certainly try to make their films with little money but you would have no producers any more."
As Drouot acknowledges, the danger with the VAF's emphasis on "commissions" to make funding choices is that they sometimes make middle-of-the-road decisions. The more daring or unusual projects may be overlooked (in recent years, both Ex Drummer and Small Gods were initially rebuffed by the VAF). If there was a single gate keeper, he or she might take more radical options. "But then he would be a dictator!" says Drouot.
What is attracting government support is the VAF's commitment to new talent and its bold attempt to do for film-making in Flanders what the Dogme generation did for cinema in Denmark. The setting up of the FilmLab is a clear statement of intent.
Conditions for film-makers in Flanders now are far more encouraging than in the early 1970s. When Drouot produced Kumel's cult hit, Daughters Of Darkness, he had no public money to help him. He had to piece the project together as an international co-production and shoot in English. Now, it is possible for young mavericks to get films financed in Flanders without starving themselves to do it.
|Top 10 Flemish films, 2007 - Flemish (co-)productions released from 1 January, 2007*|
|1||Ben X (kfd)||260,808**|
|2||A Chicken Is No Dog (independent)||219,721|
|4||Plop And The Penguin*** (kfd)||122,003**|
|5||A Perfect Match (kfd)||119,319|
|6||K3 And The Cat Prince*** (kfd)||56,978**|
|7||Where Is Winky's Horse' (Warner Bros)||50,341|
|8||With Friends Like These (kfd)||43,625|
|9||Ex Drummer (A-Film)||21,574|
|10||The Last Summer (kfd)||13,703|
|Minority co-production. * Results for Flanders and Brussels. ** In release Dec 31, 2007. *** 100% private funding. Figures are for paying admissions only. Total admissions for Flemish films in 2007 = 1,197,487|
|Top 10 Belgian films, 2007 - Belgian (co-)productions released from 1 January, 2007*|
|Title (Dist)||Release date||Adm's|
|1||Ben X (kfd)||26/09||260,808**|
|2||A Chicken Is No Dog (independent)||14/02||219,721|
|4||Plop And The Penguin *** (kfd)||17/10||122,003**|
|5||A Perfect Match (kfd)||08/08||119,319|
|6||Les Deux Mondes *** (Belga)||21/11||89,916**|
|7||Odette Toulemonde (Alternative)||07/02||75,555|
|8||Where Is Winky's Horse' (Warner)||24/10||63,549|
|9||Survivre Avec Les Loups *** (Victory)||21/11||59,713**|
|10||K3 And The Cat Prince *** (kfd)||19/12||56,978**|
|Majority Flemish production. Majority French-speaking. Minority co-production. * National admission figures (Brussels, Flanders, Walloon provinces). ** In release on Dec 31, 2007. *** Privately financed Belgian share (for instance tax shelter). Figures are for paying admissions only. Total admissions for Belgian films, 2007 = 1,600,579|