English Daily #2
Since their 1996 surprise arthouse hit The Promise, the names of Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne have not left the catalogs of the Cannes film festival. The brothers really quite rapidly conquered and established themselves as one the most respected filmmakers in modern European cinema and perhaps the most prominent figures in the history of Belgian cinema, bringing with them the most crystallized expression of the naturalistic aesthetics that had gradually matured in the films of John Cassavetes, Ken Loach, Maurice Piala and other masters in the previous decades. The long hand-held shots, minimalist dramaturgy and an almost complete absence of non-diegetic music are only the most obvious elements of the Dardens' inspired and oft-copied oeuvre, which has almost become a template for European art house cinema of the past twenty years.

Their films, most if not all of which are set in the brothers' hometown of Seraing, Liege, always focus exclusively on one or two characters and a moral dichotomy they have to resolve. The camera, never deviating for a second from the close-up of the heroine's face, tensely follows the young Rosetta from the 1999 eponymous film, while she desperately looks for a job by any means necessary. And only after selling his own infant son does Bruno, a petty thief and the main character of The Kid (2005), start to realize what it means to be a human being. The Dardennes are definitely humanists with the biggest of hearts, yet they never shy away from showing the vilest phenomena of life, even deliberately honing in on them, to reinforce the idea that humanity is present even when humankind seems to be at its lowest.

Thanks to the aforementioned two films, the Dardennes joined the exclusive list of less than a dozen filmmakers who have received the Cannes film festival Palm d’Or twice. During the July 9 opening ceremony of GAIFF, the festival also paid its respect to the Belgian brothers, awarding them with Parajanov’s Thaler for their contribution to cinema. And although the Dardennes are no longer in Armenia, the audience still has the opportunity to see their films on the big screen within the frames of their retrospective both during and after the festival.

It seems that from the very beginning you knew what you were doing and why.
LD: No, that did not happen immediately. Before The Promise we had made two films, which were quite different, and especially after finishing the second one, we realized that we had completely failed. So we simply asked ourselves: what kind of cinema do we want to make? We decided that from now on we will write the scripts for our films, we will work with our friends who know us well, even in the case of a sound engineer, that is, we will do everything by ourselves. We tried to be as free as possible.

Actress Cécile de France once said that you are like "one brain with two bodies". Don't you ever have disagreements?
JPD: We both want to do the same films. Before writing the script, we talk and rehearse a lot. All our films are the result of a long cooking process. Before starting the actual filming, we do a test shoot with the actors for about a month. But if we, the actor or the cinematographer find a new element during filming, we try it out.
LD: We try to be open, because we don't want to become prisoners of our style. But that’s easier said than done. In any case, we try.

Your style has had a great influence on European cinema of the last two decades, it’s so dominant right now.
JPD: It is a pity, if it’s dominant. But that probably also has something to do with the fact that when we see a film it becomes a part of us and our everyday reality. We inspire each other, and if our work helps other artists find their own way of making a film, then so be it.
LD: You can steal from others, but bring home what you stole. If you steal a spoon, for example, you still have to use it in your own cup afterwards. Of course, if the spoon is too large, it might be difficult to use in your cup, but that is also an option.

At the same time, with the themes and style you have, it's very easy to make the wrong step and cross the boundary into propaganda.
LD: I hope we haven’t crossed that line to propaganda territory. Our last two films in particular Young Ahmed and Tori and Lokita were addressing a very topical subject — the issue of immigrants in Belgium and Europe in general. Tori and Lokita could be seen in the manner you described, because at the end the young boy directly says: "If the state had given us documents, things would have been different" And that is exactly what we wanted to convey with that film. But the film is primarily about the friendship of those two characters. And I very much hope that this is what comes to the fore.

Would it be correct to say that your films explore another boundary, the one that separates man from animal?
JPD: We are trying to study the human conscience. For example, the main character of The Promise lends a helping hand to a woman with whom he has nothing in common, and thereby opposes his own father, his blood relative. In one way or another, humanism is present in all our films. And this was especially difficult to find in the case of Young Ahmed. How can a character who is completely walled off in religious fanaticism escape it and change, and how can someone else help him change?
LD: Writer Amos Oz says that we should be able to tell fanatics a story that is more beautiful than the story they are telling themselves. That is what we tried to do. But this is a very difficult thing.

Considering the situation in the world today, when after 70 years of relative stability at least in Europe, things are getting worse again, do you project your humanism and hope to the world in general, or are they limited to your films?
JPD: It is a very difficult question. Reality and art are not on the same level, even if the latter conveys fragments of reality. And maybe that is what allows us to have a more distant view, not as attached, and helps us to not reject reality once and for all and get lost in evil. A more alienated creative view allows you to see the better of everything. But that is not what can change reality, unlike, for example, the resistance of the Ukrainians or similar manifestations.

But aren’t art and culture at the core of what forms that resistance?
LD: There was an Italian painter, Morandi, who made delicate still lives of fragile objects placed on a table. Art is exactly that fragility. Violence can completely shatter that fragile table. Art cannot counteract brute force. At the same time, art can recollect the fragments, glue and restore the broken objects on that table over time, and we will be moved by that restored fragility. That is the role of art. It uses its fragility against strength. There is no need to despair.

Artur Vardikyan