Footnotes to Flemish Film Criticism and Culture

By Ruben Demasure (Belgium)

“Film criticism in Flanders is nonexistent.” This remark, made at a recent debate, is part of three anecdotes from the past three months that allow me to sketch film criticism, culture and production in Belgium.

(1) On January 6, I attended another debate on Belgian film criticism. There was one roundtable for the Flemish, Dutch-speaking community and one for the French-speaking community at the same time, in the same building, but in different rooms. We hardly know or read each other. A panel of three film journalists was moderated, not by a critical outsider, but by one of their colleagues. The talk was pretty predictable, more like an act of self-gratification.

(2) The opening statement was made three months prior, at another debate at Film Fest Ghent, between one of our finest film professors and one of our finest former critics, who wrote for a mainstream weekly from the 1970s until 2011. His reviews still contained elements of an analysis of mise-en-scène and form, and he cultivated a personal, polemical taste. The critic acknowledged the observation that there’s no real (professional) film criticism (as distinguished from reviews) in Flanders. The statement passed quietly as an accepted truth without any agitation of the student audience in the room.

(3) This happened some days after the passing of the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. While this caused a surge of heartfelt reactions in the international world of cinema and film culture, we didn’t really have a voice in the (mainstream) media who was familiar enough with her work or could find the right words to capture her meaning. In terms of national film production, the media rarely refute the promotional tale on the new wave of Flemish fiction films of the last decade, which are often bad or mediocre at best. The most interesting work of the last years has been made by young filmmakers in the broad field of documentary.

I’m an editorial board member of two Belgian platforms that try to offer an alternative. These initiatives weren’t represented in the most recent panel debate because they don’t qualify as professional film criticism. (named after the main character in Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP) is a trilingual collection of translations, new articles (dialogues, letters, etc.) or older texts (e.g. on Chantal Akerman) that are made accessible to a new readership., an initiative of the Flemish Service for Film Culture, publishes new texts in English and organizes events such as a Young Critics Workshop. A new, younger generation increasingly finds its way to the latter’s eight-day Summer Film College (with David Bordwell), for example. We see that the texts on Sabzian are printed, shared, discussed, especially by film students, and are an occasion to watch the films together. A new chapter is being written.