The films of the brothers Jean-Pierre (1951) and Luc (1954) Dardenne often have the name of their protagonist in the title. Think of their breakthrough rosetta (1999) which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. Later the brothers also introduced us to Lorna and young Achmed.
“All our films are portraits of individuals,” says Luc Dardenne during an interview in Amsterdam, where he previewed his latest film with his brother Jean-Pierre. Tori et Lokita attends. Why does it work so well to dismantle big issues through small stories? “Cinema is the art form par excellence that can zoom in on details or individuals. It knows how to individualize abstract problems to the maximum,” says Luc Dardenne. “At the same time, you can’t generalize characters. That’s why we have the movie Tori and Lokita named after the main characters. He is not about the refugees, the masses, but about two young people, two unaccompanied minors (unaccompanied minor aliens) with a name and a face. Through the film screen, the spectator comes face to face with individuals.”
Rain of prizes
The film world has appreciated their work for almost a quarter of a century: in addition to two Golden Palms, Luc and Jean-Pierre’s stories rooted in social reality have won numerous awards in Cannes over the years, such as best director, best script or the Grand Prix. Tori et Lokita was awarded a special Golden Palm earlier this year on the occasion of the 75th edition of the French festival. If no prize is available, they will make one up for them.
The Dardennes, originally activist documentary makers from the industrial rust belt around Liège, are never interested in entertainment, they want to achieve something. In their breakthrough film rosetta from 1999, a breaking point in European art-house film, the young protagonist is looking for work and dignity. Rosetta at the time embodied the precarious conditions on the fringes of the labor market; the film gave the final push to a law already in place to improve working conditions for teenagers in Belgium.
Read also the review of Tori et Lokita (●●●●)
The Dardennes often named their films after their main character, sometimes after the archetype that he is: the child, the boy with the bicycle, the unknown girl. But they always do one thing: look at a major social problem through the eyes of an individual. Often these are young, defenseless people who still have a lot to learn, who are at the beginning of their lives. Tori and Lokita, about two African minor asylum seekers, tells such a personal story about refugee problems. This gives the outdoor sleepers in Ter Apel a face.
From bad to worse
The films of the Dardennes have a recognizable social-realistic style. The brothers are not averse to melodrama, with relay plots in which things go from bad to worse. The ultimate goal is to wake up the public, whether it concerns unemployment, crime, (unwanted) parenthood, youth care or bureaucratic obstacles that marginalized groups encounter.
The story of Tori and Lokita the directors based on a short newspaper report about the large numbers of unaccompanied minors who end up illegally in Belgium, they say. They did meticulous preliminary research before writing their screenplay. “We spoke with representatives of official agencies and aid workers, we investigated the criminal circuit. Most AMVs who disappear from view end up in a shadow world or downright underworld of crime and prostitution. They are under pressure from people smugglers who keep asking for money. They are always short of money. That makes them extra vulnerable.
„Besides, the majority come. You must have a heart of stone after seeing Tori and Lokita not being able to read their stories on the faces of the sleepers in Ter Apel. already traumatized in Europe. During their long journey here, they have often had to deal with sexual abuse and other forms of violence, which has reduced their resilience.”
Jean-Pierre: “One thing was certain in advance. Whatever happened, nothing should undermine Tori and Lokita’s allegiance and loyalty. They are friends until death do them part.”
Tori and Lokita sometimes has something of a grim fairy tale. Luc Dardenne: „But fairytales are not so fairytale-like at all. We have become more interested in the more mythical proportions of ordinary stories. The underground cannabis plantation where Tori and Lokita end up is like the belly of the whale from the Bible story of the same name.”
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films are always full of empathy for their main characters, but they don’t judge the bad guys – they are at best observed from a distance. The creators have become more mellow and hopeful over the years, while politics and society became more divided and polarized. The brothers do not follow the zeitgeist.
To what extent do Tori and Lokita, entangled in drug trafficking, confirm the image of illegal aliens as criminal aliens? Doesn’t that also make it a far from bed show for the viewer?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: „We do not want to say that every refugee is one hundred percent pure on the degree, we do not have to paint icons. At the beginning of the film we see Lokita during an interrogation. We can hear from the voices off-screen that they don’t believe her, rightly so or not. But then also the way to the help, which Lokita needs, is cut off.
“But it is an interesting question. Do we need more unambiguous narratives in this fragmented world, should film viewers be able to identify with main characters more than before? As a result, perhaps our films no longer reach the younger generation, who are used to Netflix narratives? That’s something we need to think about.”
A version of this article also appeared in the October 19, 2022 newspaper