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De helaasheid der dingen

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Flanders, Belgium: Never mind the bollocks, long live political incorrectness

3rd November 2016

What strikes me most in Felix Van Groeningen’s film is the analogy with my own youth. That feeling of alienation that is seemingly present in every frequency of film is all too familiar with me. Indeed that’s how it goes when you have humble origins and are growing up in the back of beyond. It’s as if you’re drifting between parallel worlds. Once you leave your own doorstep, you enter an entirely estranged universe. All you’ve been accustomed to, the daily routine, the way of converse, habits of dress, food and drinks, are in doubt. And this hasn’t just to do with the difference between the private and the public sphere. It’s about a clash of cultures. In fact, all you’ve been thought to consider as normal is now being questioned. In fact, normality itself is being torn inside out. Suddenly you are the eccentric. All the ethics that you’re used to – and yes these involve sleep until noon, lounge about, put away loads of meat, having a pint too much, not changing underwear or skipping a bath or two to save on the water bill – all that is being demonised, charged with heresy.

Perhaps you might think I’m making a giant leap now to make a dubious point. But I think Van Groeningen’s film is about Brexit. Unwittingly of course, because it’s been made almost a decade ago. But don’t you think we’ve been carrying things to the limits in deluding ourselves that we are all a bunch of cheerful consumers in the liberal world? Not making room for what is politically incorrect, not permitting the idea of imperfection in our lives; that’s what this film is trying to communicate. It portraits a world of faltering people, a subculture of outcasts that we’ve been trying to eradicate from our minds but that never the less still exists. We like to assume that society is a workable asset, but that’s a dangerous belief. We’ve all been so busy trying to live up to an ideal of progress, whilst ignoring our neighbour that doesn’t fit in. Sometimes, being devoured by modern living, it looks as if George Orwell’s 1984 is happening now. And is has created a backlash amongst people. They have turned inwards upon themselves and sadly scattered our beliefs in a European brotherhood.

I am a product of that dying world of working men’s ethics. And though I’m not familiar with the kind of idle living as exposed in the film, some similarities remain. Back then a real man drunk beer, no doubt. And when he got drunk he either behaved clownish or edgy, sometimes aggressive. No one was terror-struck; it belonged to normality. And we all smoked tobacco, loads of it. The smoke made our eyes sting and the smell of it penetrated every pore of our skin. I still recollect daytrips on Sunday in my mother’s red Fiat, a sardine tin-like vehicle. Five of us, the space crammed to suffocation. Me and my little sister in the back and the adults puffing away, filling the car with a sickening, dense fog. And on Sundays we didn’t attend church but played cards for negligible coinage. And when we lost we ranted and raved, we cursed all the same. Card games always were causes for hot disputes among friends. It sticks to you. I knew faulty language prior to anything else: I knew it before I properly knew how to read and write.

These were harsh times, as the film justly depicts. Still I do not want to erase these memories, I want to treasure and accept them as part of the forging of my being. Never mind the bollocks, long live political incorrectness. I want to thank Felix Dragan for inviting me here tonight. He has made it possible for me to bring to your attention the work of two unique Flemish artists: Felix Van Groeningen, the director of the film, and Dimitri Verhulst, upon whose novel the film is based. They help us put aside our biases and feel human again. I hope you’ll enjoy the movie.


The Journey So Far...

Flanders, Belgium

13-year-old Gunther Strobbe grows up surrounded by alcohol, trash and his completely useless father and uncles. Slowly but surely, he’s being prepared for the same hapless life. Can he defy his destiny? The Misfortunates (Dutch: De helaasheid der dingen) is a 2009 Belgian comedy-drama…

2nd November 2016