19th Oct 2018

Belgian filmmaking brothers in search of a European moral conscience

  • “We have to fight against ethnic and religious separatism, the notion that people are always best of in their own community." (Photo: European Parliament)

In a frank interview by the River Meuse in the grey city of Liège, Belgian siblings and two-time Palm d'Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne tells the EUobserver about their view on Europe, immigration, education and emancipation.

The Dardennes won best screenplay at the 61st Cannes Film Festival this spring for their latest feature, Lorna's Silence (Le Silence de Lorna). Then two weeks ago, the film was awarded the European Parliament's Tower of Babel-inspired 'Lux' trophy, chosen from among 800 contributions from all over the EU.

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Lorna's Silence is the story of an Albanian woman who marries a hapless Belgian heroin addict in order to obtain an EU passport - a not surprising choice of topic for the film-duo, famous for their dour, lumpenproletariat-focused work.

Their films offer harsh portrayals of people at the fringes of society – the unemployed or the inhabitants of shelters or caravan parks, corrupt officials, small-time criminals or undocumented immigrants. They tell grim tales of the new Europe that closes its borders to the rest of the world, of the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots, and of the the brutal - but for those who know how to take advantage of the situation, quite lucrative - business of immigration.

"It seems that EU governments react little by little. One moment they give a little pity to immigrants, then suddenly renewed hardness, then a little bit more pity," says the one brother, Luc, criticising "Fortress Europe".

"On the one hand, you had the mass regularisations of immigrants in Spain and Italy, but then you also have tougher anti-immigrant policies," he said.

Both brothers are spokespeople for the Belgian 'sans-papier' movement, which campaigns for the right of undocumented immigrants to work and remain in the country.

The awakening of a moral conscience

The Dardenne films have been widely read as critical of European labour markets that cannot take care of people who wish to become part of society.

According to the directors, however, their films are not critical of increasing 'euro-centrism', but rather studies of human vulnerability, and situations in which the most unpredictable of alliances and friendships are formed between people.

The brothers' first international success came in 1996 with The Promise (La promesse), featuring Roger, the proprietor of a tenement that he lets out to immigrant workers for exorbitant rent.

Roger runs his company like any small business owner, with hard work, patience and dreams of expansion. But his business consists of treating humans like slaves. He keeps his slaves reasonably healthy and warm, while tampering with their identity cards and making sure they stay as helpless as possible in a society whose language they do not speak.

When an African labourer dies as a result of the Roger's unscrupulousness, his son Igor takes responsibility for the deceased's wife and baby. Slowly a conscience is born in the teenage boy, who in the end betrays his gangster father.

"We did not want to make a political pamphlet with The Promise, but simply tell the story of a boy who is caught between his father and the immigrant woman he has promised to care for, and how she awakens a moral conscience in him," Luc says.

The film received strong reactions in Belgium and beyond.

"Most reactions came from those who employ the illegal workforce, in indecent conditions, and tried to defend themselves. But even the extreme right used our film to make their point, arguing triumphantly that immigrants who come to Europe and Belgium should expect dreadful conditions, so they have better not come at all," Luc explains dejectedly.

One of the least expected and most surprising reactions to the film, Luc said, was an interviewer from Swedish radio who called the film 'eurosceptic', arguing that joining the EU makes countries and people poorer.

"For us, Europe is a fantastic chance to deal with these problems. Without Europe it would be worse. If we want to keep our social security, the social system and decent work legislation in Sweden or elsewhere, we need Europe," Luc argues, explaining that in a dog-eat-dog capitalism system, the abuser and the abused will just move from country to country if all countries do not regulate together.

"If we want people to have social security, a social system and decent work legislation, we need Europe."

Fight against ethnic separatism

The Dardennes are two of 15 celebrities acting as goodwill ambassadors for the European Year of Intercultural dialogue, which was launched by the European Commission in January.

The initiative aims at promoting tolerance and understanding across ethnic, religious and cultural frontiers in the EU. According to the filmmakers, the non-confessional nature of our states is an indispensable condition for different cultures to co-exist, to find 'common ground'.

"We have to fight against ethnic and religious separatism, the notion that people are always best off in their own community ... and instead promote a policy of real integration, where all people unite around the same fundamental values: The UN Declaration of Human Rights," Jean-Pierre says.

"We need to agree on common moral values, such as equality between men and women, something that we are far from all agreeing upon today."

According to Luc, common moral values can only be put forward in a secular framework - and women can only be equal in societies that reject religion as law.

"One of the most beautiful movements right now is Ni Putes ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissive), which fights for social justice, against ethnic, religious and cultural discrimination, and for gender equality," he says, adding that both he and his brother are members of the movement, which started among immigrant women in the Parisian suburbs.

School must teach morals

On the issue of segregation and racism booming throughout Europe, Luc returned to the discourse of "moral conscience", and pointed out the important role that schools must play in order to create such ethics in European children.

"Our society's biggest problem is education, teaching. More than ever before, there are problems with segregation, the rupture between social groups that can be explained partly by schools," he said.

"There are many schools where the students are becoming increasingly homogenous, and even schools who profile themselves as not having any immigrants or students from minority groups."

"We also need to redefine goals and objectives, and stress that we shouldn't educate our children only according the current needs of the labour markets, but to become full citizens ... give teach them artistic sensibility, a sense of history, teach them how to be open to the world."

"We have forgotten to educate how to be a man, how to be a human being, to be moral individuals."

"And we have to be able to speak each other's languages if we want to listen to each other. Schools must press language skills harder," his brother Jean-Pierre adds while admitting that his English is not so good.

"Still, I really try," he says, smiling apologetically.

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