Belgian filmmaker Kristof Bilsen’s debut feature Elephant’s Dream, a beautifully poetic, insightful documentary focusing on three government workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, receives its UK premiere at the East End Film Festival this weekend (read our review here). We spoke to Kristof ahead of the screening to discuss his filmmaking process, the theatrical dream-like character of the film and the focus on the human dignity of its characters over political posturing.
You’ve described your approach to documentary making as “non-journalistic” and motivated by a “curiosity to explore the underlying states of things.” When you’re approaching a documentary project, how do you begin to settle on an idea?
It’s quite an organic process. I would say one film brings me to the next. The previous film was about the Belgian national identity. Researching that brought me to the Belgian colonial legacy in Congo. But eventually I found that the film is more about people now, and how people cope with this very intrusive reality of not having a job or pay. So it becomes much bigger, but it’s about trusting the process. It’s not like I’m super conceptual. I appreciate much more films that make you think and bring you closer to the subject, rather than the filmmaker telling you what they think.
One of the film’s great strengths is that it doesn’t directly tackle the colonial legacy or recent conflicts, but they are still in the background. Was that a deliberate choice or did that evolve?
I felt that if you did that, you would immediately objectify the characters. They would become just an object of your argument of colonisation. Of course it’s embedded in the story; every building and institution you see is part of the colonial legacy, so every frame in a way breathes it anyway. But if you stressed that it would be an argument film, and for me it’s more a portrait of these people. The more screenings I do, the bigger the debate around it, which is great. But I like much more that people are touched by something; touched by the story, emotionally engaging with the characters onscreen, then only afterwards question their own past, present and future.
That human element of the film – though western audiences don’t necessarily share common past experiences with Congolese people, we can all relate to these characters and their very universal human story. How did you find those contributors?
For Henriette I knew I didn’t want a male character in the post office. Immediately it would put you in a situation where you might get this political stance. I felt because it’s already a very bureaucratic, draining environment, it would be wonderful to have a female, more poetic touch to it. Somebody who’s really embodying this strength, human dignity and poetry. And Henriette was ideal for that.
[Simon and Nzai], when I arrived I saw them sitting in front of the rail station and immediately saw these kind of typical theatrical characters. The silent one and the other more choleric. It felt like that’s the perfect set up, the friendship. And you get this nice surprise that actually they go way back, so that’s really great.
The fire station was the most difficult one to cast, because it’s a very violent environment in a way. It’s quite apocalyptic, quite intrusive, they don’t want to be there everyday. Finding one character I could follow for four years wasn’t so straightforward. I stumbled upon this lieutenant who gave me a couple of interviews which were so thought provoking and in depth, it felt like he’s almost like the choir of the film. And so I decided he could be like a silent presence throughout the film, but giving you these wonderful and insightful ideas, even about colonisation, the stress, the anger.
You mention the theatrical parallels with Simon and Nzai. They’re almost reminiscent of Samuel Beckett characters; constantly waiting, and often talk about leaving.
Are those things you’re conscious of whilst making the film?
I think so. You notice almost immediately there’s something absurd about the situation. There are no trains and there’s a rail station they need to take care of. It’s kind of a theatrical. It’s almost like they are representing power, by wearing their costume, by how they interact with the students. It’s performative. You can’t possibly just sit around, so you have to show off in a way. They all know it’s quite an absurd piece of theatre to a certain extent. It’s a way of keeping up appearances.
On the other hand, you never know, in their context it might change; there might be a government change, a political change, and they might finally get their pay or the situation might change. So there’s also a hope in them carrying on for the better, for the day that things will eventually change.
Those theatrical elements help contribute to the film’s dream like atmosphere. Was that atmosphere something you were always keen to bring to the story or did that come in post-production?
It’s more a dialectic between the shoot and the edit. My amazing editor Eduardo Serrano is Brazilian, he’s very aware of this filmic quality. There was definitely a notion we didn’t want to make a classic documentary. We knew the only way to get people close to this kind of story would be to have that visceral dreamlike character. The characters’ psychology would only be transmitted if you had this beautiful camerawork, with the sound design really focusing on the voices and silences, to really bring over the psychology of their situation to the audience.
The audio recordings of subjects layered over long static shots helps give a poetic, intimate feel, but that was partly motivated by a desire to be as unintrusive to your subjects as possible. Did you meet much resistance when interviewing potential subjects, considering Congo’s history of repressive regimes?
In the beginning, yes. There were a couple of weeks where I would be accused, being Belgian of course, asked what I was doing, e.t.c. But it was always a matter of time and space, and really having this conversation. And I tried to have these conversations as much as possible outside their workplace. Of course there’s a repressive regime, but when you have them in a more private space you’d be able to talk about it.
The only thing we really took care of was to not go into the purely political. Let’s not point fingers, because it would put them at risk. It’s a problem that’s been going, actually, since colonization. It’s nothing new, it’s only getting worse, to a certain extent. But that was a clear code; let’s not go into politics. But apart from that it was time and space and just being really curious, open and patient.
Eschewing a more political approach keeps the focus on the dignity of these individuals who, though faced with these potentially hopeless situations, keep going. Was that something you were keen to show Western audiences, who tend to hold stereotypical views of Africa?
Absolutely. I feel there’s either a spectrum of films that show the extreme violence in the East, the tribal issues, the rebels and the rapes, versus “there is hope,” where one character goes through redemption, a catharsis. For me personally these stories lack nuance, can be a bit polemic. Why not show very ordinary people and the hope from these little steps they take that are not like Hollywoodian steps? They’re little steps and they show dignity.
However I’m really happy that you pointed that out. Every so often people would say, “it’s a very hopeless situation, it’s a very hopeless film, and it’s a bitter ending.” Well, if you look around you, it’s not just Africa, it’s not just Congo; you see what is happening in Greece, even what is happening in London, what’s happening in Brussels. It is hopeful if we all share these stories, if we talk about these things. If we dare to question our past, present and future, how do we see our society evolving, what do we expect from a government, and what do we expect from sole individual responsibilities? I believe there should be some sort of a structure that allows people to feel safe. And these people have no safety whatsoever. Not politically, not socially. And yet people still show their dignity and still have their strength, and to share these difficulties, for me that is super hopeful.
How has the film been received in DR Congo? Have you had much reaction?
So far the reactions have been very positive. They’re really happy it’s not going into any specific political mode. When I showed it last year at the world premiere in Leipzig, I had Henriette see the film simultaneously in Kinshasa on a laptop, and it was great to have her reactions straight after the screening. She was super happy with the film and grateful I took so much time in really observing the details of her daily life. But moreover she was hoping that people would, for a couple of minutes, feel as trapped as she feels almost every day. I find that a huge compliment, how she experiences the film. It really transcends what she’s going through. And Simon and Nzai were also really happy. Because it’s quite universal and it’s not really political that’s what they appreciate so much.
The cinematography also offers a different perspective on Africa that tends to be shown in the West, very colourful and vibrant. When you first visited Kinshasa did you want to reflect that?
I really felt like the film can only be telling the story when I filter out as much chaos as possible. If you see films shot in big African cities, they are so packed with chaos. It feels like that’s the only framing we have for these cities; chaos, a mess. Which is to a certain extent true, of course, but so is London. An outsider takes in all these impulses but for those who live there they filter it out.
That’s what I’ve tried to do throughout the four years of making the film. What is essential? What is the focus of this film? Surely it’s not poverty; surely it’s not endless imagery of slums, sexy postcards of poverty. No, it’s a film about these characters, and there’s a silence and an introspection. So it means I have to be really selective about what I show and what I don’t. But the editor was hugely helpful because he grew up in an impoverished region in Brazil, so he was really aware of what imagery is over the top and what is really helping the story.
Elephant’s Dream is your debut feature, after great success with short films. What was the biggest challenge in adapting to the longer format?
It’s been hugely challenging. The whole thing about making a film that’s not commercial, that’s not forcing a narrative, it immediately implies you are subject to a lack of funding. On a production or distribution level it’s not a straightforward film. So far it has been really successful on the festival circuit and it’s been awarded several times. But it’s a tough ride these days to make these kind of artistic or creative documentaries that are bold, more cinematic and more open to an audience making up their own minds. That’s not a straightforward sell. But it’s a wonderful job and I wouldn’t like to do anything otherwise.
You studied a Masters at NFTS (National Film and Television School). How did that experience develop your filmmaking?
I definitely learned a lot about observational filmmaking. But it was also really interesting as a Belgian filmmaker being confronted with that British tradition. That allowed me to discover my own imprint a bit more, that would question the European or Belgian theatrical take on telling stories, which is perhaps more visual and less prosaic. That has been hugely helpful, because I had to confront myself with what I actually want to do, how to go about it, and how to defend it also. So in that sense it’s been a huge plus. And also the peers, the editors, the sound designers, all these people who also worked on the film were also colleagues from the film school. It’s really about finding your allies, I would say, during that time.
What is next for you?
I don’t want to jinx it too much! There’s a film I’m working on in Belgium which is quite an important film, and then one in India and one in Tunisia.
Thank you very much!
Our many thanks to Kristof and Zena Howard.
Elephant’s Dream will premiere in the UK on Saturday 4th July as part of the East End Film Festival. Read our review here