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‘Black’ Brings the Gangs of Brussels to the Big Screen

Still courtesy TIFF

Brussels is often thought of as a quintessential capital city: organized, unassuming, stately, and sleepy as all hell. But that’s not the Brussels of 27-year-old Belgian-based Moroccan filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s new movie Black, which is set in the inner city neighborhoods and centers on gang violence and alienation among poor black and Moroccan communities. The film is essentially a Romeo and Juliet love story, but shot with the streetwise and unflinching sensibilities of Larry Clark’s Kids or Hector Babanco’s Pixote. It uses blazing visuals to convey the seemingly limitless possibility of violence in the inner city.

As a second full-length feature for the directorial team (their debut was 2014’s Image), the film bears some of the cliches of young filmmakers grappling with big topics: the violence is occasionally over-stylized and parts of the plot feel a bit rushed, and while most of the characters on both side of the racial divide are complex and well drawn, the black gangsters are particularly vicious.

But their commitment to the authenticity of the neighborhoods and the story set thereinthe film is based on Dirk Bracke’s youth-oriented novel of the same name, which is apparently a controversial favorite in Belgiumcomes through in the characters and locations. (The entire film was cast off the streets, and shot in the city’s marginalized neighborhoods.) Indeed, even though Black begins with its focus on the petty, fairly unlikeable Moroccan gang and its proverbial Romeo, Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi), the real story becomes the tragic journey of Juliet stand-in Mavella’s (Martha Canga Antonio) relationship with the terrifyingly powerful, and ultra-violent, Black Bronx ganga crew with a penchant for gang rape and neighborhood intimidation.

The all-around bleakness of the film aside, the filmmakers came across as a pair of enthusiastic and considerate dudes when VICE met up with them for their first ever North American interview.

VICE: How did you two get into filmmaking?
Bilall Fallah: On the first day of school, which was all only, like, artistic white people, he was the only Moroccan. So I asked him, “Are you Moroccan? And he said, “Yeah.” So we formed a gang together, and made movies together. It came naturally: Every time I made a movie, he was on my set, and every time he made a movie, I was on set. It was like our minds were connected, sharing the same vision.

And these were student films?
Adil El Arbi: Yeah, in film school. We didn’t even pass first year because everybody thought our films sucked.

Fallah: We both flunked. And they were fucking racist.

El Arbi: But the kind of movies we made were actually quite commercial. We were inspired by movies by it was like a bomb of emotions and we knew it was going to be her.

What about the street lingo and the dialectsdo you think any of that gets lost in the subtitles?
Fallah: We showed the movie through the French speaking channel and they didn’t have any problem understanding it. Though, even for us there were little words and little jokes that we didn’t understand.

El Arbi: We showed it to a famous Belgian artist, Stromae, and he was there with his black family and friends, and they were laughing their asses off. They understood all those sentencesso the actors were really thinking about their lines. But it’s the images that really tell the story.

What was it like shooting the film?
Both: It was war.

El Arbi: We told the actors that if we want to make this movie it’s like going into war. One-hundred percent, you have to give yourself, heart, and mind. And in some of those neighborhoods, there was some violence, like threatening to stab one of the white people on the crew.

Fallah: I got a bottle smashed on my head.

El Arbi: But we reached out to them. We went to the neighborhoods months before we went to shoot, to get the trust of the people there. We wanted to be authentic in the actors and in the locations. We weren’t going to shoot in the part of Brussels where nothing happens, and we wanted to be on the streets that are described in the book.

Fallah: We wouldn’t tell people it was a film about gangsters, we’d tell them it was a love story.

One last question… how do you think this is going to be received in Belgium and in Europe?
El Arbi: Very interesting. The book was really hard.

The book already had a reputation?
El Arbi: Yeah, it was really popular. So when we shot the movie, we would shoot the hardest version possible and then tone it down a little. But the first version that we showed the producer and the distributors, they were like, keep it that way: keep it hard, keep it rough, you don’t need to tone it down. So it’s pretty much the version we have now. I think the good thing is that it will not go unnoticed. And that is a good thing for young directors.

Black plays at Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 11, 9 PM; Sunday, September 13, 10 PM; and Saturday, September 19, 3 PM.

Follow Chris Bilton on Twitter.


Categorised as: interesting

Posted by: Whyst1955

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