Interview: Bas Devos
The award-winning filmmaker discusses his latest film 'Here'
I first encountered Bas Devos’ work in 2015, when his debut feature Violet played at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York City. By far the best thing I saw from that lineup in 2015, I kept an eye on what he might do next. That came in 2019, when he premiered two features in the same year: Hellhole, which premiered at Berlin, and Ghost Tropic, which played at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.
Lack of distribution prevented me from seeing Hellhole (Film Movement released it on VOD in late 2023 via their streaming platform Film Movement Plus), but Ghost Tropic represented a significant leap forward for Devos after Violet. In 2023, Devos premiered his fourth feature Here in Berlin’s Encounters section, where it won the prize for Best Film in Encounters, and has since played at festivals including TIFF and NYFF.
Here centres on Stefan (Stefan Gota), a Romanian immigrant living in Brussels who works in construction. Unhappy with his life in Belgium, he spends his last days in the city before heading home for vacation to consider if he’ll even come back. He soon crosses paths with Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a Belgian-Chinese woman who works at her family’s Chinese restaurant while pursuing her doctorate in bryology, where she studies moss. Despite their completely different lives, Stefan and Shuxiu eventually bond over studying moss during a chance encounter at a park.
All of this background and context is here due to the nature of my discussion with Devos, which delves into his prior features as well as the influences and philosophies that informed the making of Here. I interviewed Devos in February 2023, days before Here had its world premiere, when he was unsure about how his new film might be received. Here is currently in limited release in North American cinemas courtesy of Cinema Guild. To find out more about when and where Here will be playing, you can visit Cinema Guild’s website.
I thought a lot about Ghost Tropic while watching Here since both films are set in Brussels, and Ghost Tropic is about Brussels itself in a lot of ways. Did your experience filming Ghost Tropic influence the way you wanted to portray the city in Here?
I made Hellhole, which also took place in Brussels, before Ghost Tropic. Hellhole is quite a different film from Ghost Tropic. I think filming the city in Ghost Tropic was a bit of a reaction to what I did with Hellhole. It was a way of responding to myself, and responding to the image of Brussels that I was left with after making Hellhole. Hellhole was a film about the terrorist attacks here in 2016, and so, very naturally, the film got… it sounds negative, but it got a bit poisoned by the atmosphere of the time. There was a deep confusion in a lot of people in Brussels, [questioning] where we are going from here and how we will deal with all of this. It was a very tangible wound, and I think Hellhole tapped into that feeling.
The making of Ghost Tropic was, for me, a way of finding a possible band aid to this wound. In Hellhole I was thinking a lot about private spaces versus public spaces and how, especially nowadays with the phone lying around, that the boundary between these two worlds has become imperceptible. A lot of the visuals about the city in Hellhole was thinking about the city as borders. Where does one world cross over into the next? And even if all of these spaces seem so transparent, how come the lives of people are still so separate? How come there's such a gap between me and somebody living on the other side of my street? We're such a diverse city. It's such a complex city that thinking about spaces and human beings is necessary. In the making of Ghost Tropic, I tried to approach the city more as a fabric. I wanted to use the city in a more adventurous way, where I think in Hellhole it was very rigid.
In preparing for Here, I think there was another step for me, because the film is less about the city. It's less about the specific city of Brussels and it's more about transitory spaces. This Romanian man working here is thinking about returning home and doubting whether or not he will return after his holidays. In his mind, he is already in a transitory space. I wanted to visualise this transition, this sort of no man's land in which he finds himself. I think about the little film within the film where Stefan and Shuxiu meet in a swamp-like park next to the train tracks. It's a space that takes you out of Brussels, [it’s] really the border between Brussels and the rest of the world. And it's a wounded space. It's a toxic park where a lot of garbage has been dumped and then, slowly, has been taken over by nature again, and then man has reappropriated it by making some parts to walk around. But basically we're walking on garbage. There are a lot of these thoughts and ideas that come together in this space for me. I feel like the next film I'm going to make will be out of the city. I feel that I'm going to move away from Brussels, and this film is also a sort of transition [for me].
Since you’re talking about a character who finds himself in this transitory place, I assume it was natural to use characters who didn’t have firm roots in Brussels.
I am Belgian, but I moved [to Brussels] to study. I came from the north, the Flemish part of Belgium. The interesting sensation one has when arriving in Brussels is, even though I am Belgian and this is the capital of Belgium, there is a deep sense of otherness in arriving here. Finding your way around the city takes time. You need to find your own comfort in moving through the city, because it's a city that is free. The complexity is already just in the basic fact that language is a complicated question. There is not one language that binds everybody here that everybody speaks. So in meeting somebody else, the first question is always, “Do you understand what I'm saying?” That idea is very attractive, but it also complicates daily life and connection with others. It generates a feeling and a sensation that must exist in many big cities, but I haven't experienced it anywhere else.
What was your introduction to bryology?
Basically through literature. I was reading Anna Tsing's book The Mushroom at the End of the World. It's a very beautiful book about the Matsutake, which is the most expensive mushroom in the world. She dedicates a book made up of a bunch of essays about the whole economy that surrounds the Matsutake, which is a mushroom that you cannot grow. You can't grow it, you need to find it. And in many ways, she links the economy around this very specific mushroom, which is a delicacy in Japan, to a post-capitalist world that is aggressively eating up its resources.
I read something in the book about moss being the first plant. I don't exactly remember, but I know that there was something in it about it being the first land plant and, in many ways, an ancestor to who we are. Just that simple fact amazed me. Maybe a lot of people know it, but I didn't. So I went looking to read about moss and [found] an amazing book by Robin Wall Kimmerer called Gathering Moss. She dives very deep [into] her love and deep connection to moss. She opened up this whole world to me that resonated very strongly with an idea I was working on. That idea was that a prerequisite for love, or a precondition for love, is attention. Everything begins with being attentive to the world and people around us, by looking each other in the eye and really seeing each other in order to make a connection.
Attention is this very basic first step, and in our relation to the natural world this broken connection is very tangible. But our attention to the natural world is broken. While reading her book, I started to wonder. If we would be knowledgeable, if we would know the names of the plants in the forest we walk in, if we would know the names of the different mosses, how would we treat the space? How would we move through this space? What touched me the most about moss is that it's a plant that is invisible until you've seen it, and once you've seen it you cannot unsee it. It's everywhere. Again, maybe I'm late in realising this. It's very possible that the audience goes "Yeah, sure." But if somebody sees my film and then goes out and picks up moss, stops and looks at it really closely, that would amaze me. That would make me happy.
What is your preparation process like? What do you focus on specifically?
For me, it often begins with just reading. I've said this before, and it always makes me a bit uncomfortable because I think it can be interpreted as impulsive, but if something triggers me I can get swept away. For example, I read The Mushroom at the End of the World, and I knew I couldn’t not think about this. It's not even thinking about film. I need to understand this more, I need to grasp a bit more what she says about the ground we live on and the economy we live in. I think a lot of that comes together with other floating thoughts.
There was also the floating thought in my head of labour migration in Europe. I'm afraid to say the wrong year because I'm not entirely sure, but we opened the borders for Romania, Bulgaria and some of the Eastern European countries to be part of the European Union and the European labour market. I was shocked to discover that there are 43,000 Romanians in Brussels. They are the fastest growing group of labour migrants in Brussels. I didn't know this, and I thought that was interesting. This invisibility, and the fact that they're such a large community that I didn’t know it very well, it sucked me in. I got into conversations with Stefan [Gota], who is a friend of mine who also plays the main character. He was like, “Yeah, man, there's a lot you don't know.” [Laughs]
So together we started speaking to and interviewing people, mainly people working in construction, sometimes for European institutions, sometimes working in hospitals. But there’s an idea that the foundations of this country, and the foundations of our healthcare system, are being held upright by mainly Eastern European labour migrants. I feel like people know this already, and I'm very late to understanding this, but it still shocked and moved me. That got mixed in with thinking about a place to claim, and our relationship to land.
Do you feel daunted when you get swept away like that? You realise you’re unaware of something, but some people might run away from that feeling. You're actively diving in and wanting to discover more. Does it ever feel intimidating, especially in trying to portray it?
Always. It feels very fragile, and I feel like there is an [element] of restraint in my films of not wanting to make it seem as if I understand this. Because I am a human being, I can understand how people relate to each other, how we are trying to negotiate connections, and how we are trying to find a common ground. But to claim that I understand what it means to be an Eastern European labour migrant leaving their family and home is so daunting that I wouldn't dare to take it upon myself. But that's also the beauty of film, we don't have to. We don't have to claim to understand the world. We can also just question and doubt, and lay something on the table and say, “This is what I felt, but what do you see? What do you hear?” This space where, as a filmmaker, you are allowed to doubt and be uncertain is very important to safeguard.
Your films are very exact in their execution, but they're also very inviting. It feels like they could transform into an entirely different film at a moment’s notice. How would you describe the kind of mood or rhythm you're trying to establish in your films?
A big influence on me as a person, but especially on this film, is the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. She wrote a beautiful essay called The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, which is an essay I only discovered while I was in full preparation for this film. I wrote a basic setup of a guy who has to go home and clean out his fridge, he cooks a big pot of soup, and then he goes around handing out the soup. I thought it was very beautiful, but I don't find many examples of films where this could be enough, where there wouldn't be any tension or conflict that needs to be injected in it to be valuable. I thought, “How am I ever gonna sell this? Am I going to convince myself that this is enough for a film?”
And then I stumbled upon Le Guin’s essay, which is an invitation to think differently about narrative. I [felt like] she found the words for my frustration with narrative. What she wrote in that essay corresponded very much with how I think of story, like the idea that story equals conflict is something I've always found troubling. And in conflict, of course, there’s often violence, whether physical or emotional, as a starting point for narrative, or as a plot point. I found this very frustrating because I just wanted to make a film about a guy and soup. Reading her texts felt like encouragement that we need to think about different ways of telling stories, or we are just going to repeat and perpetuate the same narratives. Even though I still can deeply enjoy these kinds of narratives when they are well executed, if it isn't extremely well done it just bores me. I've been looking for and enjoying filmmakers who don't do this, who just disregard expectation.
In the past, you’ve described both Violet and Hellhole as fragmentary in terms of their style. With Ghost Tropic you wanted to make a distinctive shift away from that, and you said earlier that you feel like you'll shift away from Brussels as a location for your next film. What do you envision for your approach to filmmaking for the future?
I think the question of production has been bothering me more and more, like the rigid form in which fiction films are made. You have a limited amount of shooting days, the “magic” needs to happen on those days, and it costs a lot of money because there's a relatively big crew. Sometimes I got really frustrated with this way of working, and at the same time I was somewhat tired of doing it alone. I spoke to a close friend of mine, a relatively young filmmaker. He's looking to make his first feature film, and I said maybe we can make a film together. I think the next film is going to be really different, just because it's a film made by two people. We will negotiate the space between the two of us, and already that will have a severe impact on what the film might end up being.
We don’t have much time left, so I'll end things with a simple question: what’s your favourite soup?
It's beautiful, you are the second one to ask me this question.
The soup is actually an ode to my father. My father was a soup person, and I like soup, but I wrote it for him. He was like, “You can wake me up at any time of the night for soup.” I find it very beautiful that soup is something that one can make with whatever is leftover. And my favourite soup is exactly that. If there are some leftovers in the fridge, we cook it up, and it becomes a rapid transformation of waste into something yummy.