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Geert Criel talks about the Best of Recent Belgian Cinema screening series

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Screening of the first film from the Grit and Whimsy: The Best of Recent Belgian Cinema series is set for July 21, 2010. To learn more about this series we had an interview with Mr. Geert Criel, Consul General of Belgium in Los Angeles.

Mr. Criel’s professional experience started in 1983, when he started to work with Fortis Bank (largest Belgian bank) at the Foreign Trade and Credit Departments. From 1990 till present, Mr. Criel had been employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was successively posted in Rome, Brussels (Representation to the European Union), Tel Aviv, Royal Palace, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

Mr. Criel graduated in 1979 from the University of Antwerp with a B.A. in Economics. In 1981, he earned a M.A. in International Relations from the School of Advanced International Studies at the John Hopkins University.

Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us about past and present state of filmmaking in Belgium
Geert Criel: With a production of about 34 features, 171 short films and some 75 documentaries in 2009, independent film production in Belgium is alive and kicking. Having gone through a thorough professionalization process over the past couple of years, animation has now become an integral part of the industry as well.

But cinema in Belgium has deep historic roots. Already in the 30’s directors such as Charles Dekeukeleire and Henri Storck experimented successfully with the camera. After the Second World War the industry needed time to regain strength, but reached international recognition again in the 60’s with filmmakers such as Raoul Servais or André Delvaux. It is however in the 80’s and 90’s that Belgian cinema, be it from Flanders or from the French speaking part of the country, has risen to international prominence, boasting richly diverse and original films. From the unsettling but still urgently relevant Man Bites Dog, which rocked the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, and the quirky and vibrant tale of identity mix-up in Toto Le Héros, to the monumental saga of Daens or the Oscar nominated Everybody Famous, the string of critically lauded dramatic works of the brilliant duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, or the thrillers Loft, Memory of a Killer or Dossier K. The capacity of Belgian cinema to tell new stories, funny or realistic, happy or sad, but always surprising and captivating, is striking.

BT: How challenging is making films for the filmmakers in Belgium? Are there any funds provided by the government or private sector for helping the filmmakers?
GC: A relatively small home market of course also means limited resources. But there is support available in both the Flemish and the French communities. Flanders Audiovisual Fund and the Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel give financial support for various stages of the production process: scriptwriting and development, production, promotion, theatrical distribution and broadcasting. For example, the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, launched at the end of 2002, annually manages to support between 8 and 10 features, as well as a number of shorts, documentaries, and animation projects. The Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel supports every between 15-20 feature films, 30 shorts and 50 documentaries. In addition, the Regions in Belgium are also involved in the industrial development of audiovisual practice by subsidizing specific projects or structures.

On a national level, the “tax shelter” offers tax benefits to Belgian companies or enterprises that invest in audiovisual work, short and feature films, TV fiction and documentaries. The program has tremendous success and has attracted major international film studios. It creates a win-win-win situation for all parties involved: the producer who is offered a very attractive way to finance his projects; the investor who obtains tax exemption through a virtually risk-free investment; and the Belgian state which cashes in on increased economic activities in the country. Finally, producers in Belgium have access to the main European sources of financing, Eurimages of the Council of Europe and the MEDIA program of the European Commission.

BT: A few new films from Belgium shows that filmmakers, while keeping their own styles, have an eye to the world main stream cinema, how popular such movies have been inside and outside the country?
GC: International success really depends from film to film. Although intended for the local market, certain films fared really well internationally. Memory Of A Killer got sold to well over 20 territories. Rumba Over 40 and A Town Called Panic were a success in many countries, including the United States. Some art-house oriented titles also manage to cross many borders, in France, the Netherlands and Europe, but also beyond, especially in the United States. I’m thinking of features such as Ben X, Farinelli, The Eighth day, Les Barons, Rapt, The Misfortunates, Moscow Belgium, the works of the Dardenne brothers, to cite only a few..

Both the Flanders Audiovisual Fund and, to a lesser extent, the Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel have developed a two-track approach, making sure that both mainstream and art-house films are produced. Mainstream films intend to reach large audiences while the art-house titles are there to attract more niche or specialist audiences (and will usually also have access to international festivals). And, the system seems to work reasonably well. The rate of failures (i.e. films that did not reach their target groups) remains extraordinary low. In Flanders, for example, the market share of Flemish films has passed the 15% mark in recent years. This policy also means that some filmmakers from Belgium have become household names at some key international film festivals such as Toronto, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Rotterdam, Berlin and Cannes.

BT: Please tell us about The Best of Recent Belgian Cinema series
GC: Belgium assumes the Presidency of the European Union from July-December 2010, and in celebration of that position, is partnering with the American Cinematheque to present Grit and Whimsy, a series showcasing six recent films coming out of Belgium, every third Wednesday of the six coming months. The line-up includes top-notch films that range from buoyant to heavy-hitting, such as the breathtaking thriller DOSSIER K, the coming-of-age comedy Private Lessons, the delightful romp The Over The Hill Band, and the dramatic Angel at Sea. Belgium’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Film of the 2011 Academy Awards in November and a surprise movie in December will be on the program as well.

We hope that some of the filmmakers and actors will attend the screenings, and there is a very good chance that some will after the summer. Filmmakers in Belgium enjoy coming to Hollywood, which they see as an opportunity to confront their work with the vibrant public and film industry in Los Angeles.

BT: Why did you decide to choose a screening series over running a festival?
GC: It seemed like a good idea not to concentrate the screening of some of the best recent Belgian movies in only one week. We wanted to create the opportunity of a monthly “appointment” with Belgian cinema, on the third Wednesday of the month. This should give many people a chance to see the movies and some might even see them all! We plan to make it a complete Belgian experience by offering a glass of Belgian beer before or after the screenings. We will see if the experience is successful: if it is we will consider expanding the series in the future or make it a permanent feature on the Los Angeles film scene.

BT: How can the public attend the screening series?
GC: The screenings all take place on the third Wednesday of the month. The July and December screenings will be in the Egyptian Theater, whereas the other films will show at the Areo in Santa Monica. The program and ticket information is available on www.americancinematheque.com. You can also consult the website of the Consulate General of Belgium in Los Angeles: www.diplomatie.be/losangeles.

The first film will be DOSSIER K. of Director Jan Verheyen on Wednesday July 21, 2010 at the Egyptian Theater: anchored by strong performances and sleek cinematography, this thriller follows a duo of underdog policemen as they unravel a labyrinthine network of deceit and corruption –extending from rural Albanian mafia warfare to the Belgian police bureau- behind one man’s murder. The film was a box office success in Belgium and is sure to dazzle audiences in Los Angeles.

BT: Who are sponsors of The Best of Recent Belgian Cinema?
GC: We are lucky to have the following sponsors for this series: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, on the occasion of the Belgian Presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2010; the film commissions in Belgium, Flanders Image and Wallonie-Bruxelles International, which actively participated in setting up the series and selecting the movies; European Languages and Movies in America (ELMA), a Santa Monica based nonprofit organization dedicated to showcasing European movies; and Latis Imports representing Palm Breweries, Belgium’s largest independent brewery and the maker of PALM, in the United States. Last but not least, I would like to thank the American Cinematheque, as always a stimulating and exciting partner in film adventures.

Article by: Bijan Tehrani

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