Conversations about Kind Hearts
Gerard-Jan Claes and Olivia Rochette found one another as creative partners already while studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. Since then, they have worked together in collaboration with the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on several documentaries for Rosas. And they made the film Grands travaux (2016), which follows a number of teenagers from Brussels during their training at the Anneessens-Funck technical school, where they are taught practical skills such as electricity. While connecting wires, they talk about their interests and love relations.
Claes and Rochette’s new, long documentary, Kind Hearts, follows Billie and Lucas, a young couple from Brussels. Once again, connection through exchange is central. The film came into being through the dialogue between the filmmakers and the couple, who are given time to speak within the framework provided by Olivia. During the take, Gerard-Jan takes notes, and then they evaluate what they’ve seen and decide what the next step will be. The director duo sets the course together. By their own account, they always know they have the same goal, even though the way to that goal is sometimes only found through dialogue. Exchanging views is a dynamic process for them in which observation is central. With great attention and dedication to detail, they capture the adolescent lives without wanting to leave their mark on them. In this way, reality unfolds within a carefully composed cinematic space.
Sabzian spoke with Gerard-Jan, Olivia, Billie and Lucas about their experiences during this collaboration.
Interview with Gerard-Jan Claes and Olivia Rochette
Nina de Vroome: Kind Hearts focuses on Billie and Lucas’s relationship. The couple is faced with the choice of what they will study after high school. While much is changing in their lives, they wonder how their relationship will evolve. The film begins at a crossroads in their lives. What was the starting point for this film?
Olivia Rochette: It started with Grands travaux. In one scene, Barry, one of the Anneessens-Funck pupils, calls his girlfriend and a touching dialogue ensues. Using almost clichéd but at the same time disarming language, he tries to put his feelings into words. Speaking, trying to get closer to a loved one through words, was the seed for Kind Hearts.
Gerard-Jan Claes: The starting point was the desire to “film” a love story, without actors and a classic scenario, portrayed in a documentary film. The love story is of course iconic and recognisable, and it is connected with an entire spectrum of known formats and forms. Kind Hearts also started from a fascination for the way love is portrayed in films, soap operas, pop music and stories, how it is portrayed within a larger whole.
Rochette: So the beginning was quite abstract, a “documentary about love”. The next step was to look for characters and more specifically a couple. We attended classes in different schools in Brussels for a few weeks. We interviewed some pupils about their lives and their perspective on relationships. Then we organised camera tests to see how they related to the camera, how they could become an image. Finally, we decided to continue with Billie and Lucas.
What was so special about them? The way they talked about love, how they moved or spoke?
Claes: I think we initially found Lucas’s openness and Billie’s more mysterious and timid appearance very disarming. Choosing characters is the most nerve-racking moment of the process. You choose two people with whom you will embark on a long journey, without knowing whether it will actually work. Why these two and not others? That is a terrifying decision.
Rochette: When we started the film, we had no idea how their relationship would evolve, what we would focus on and what would happen. Now the film contains a logical narrative arc, but the starting point remains a documentary approach.
How does a narrative structure emerge from documentary observation?
Rochette: I love watching people, observing how they act and relate to each other. I find it special to be able to translate certain elements of Billie and Lucas’s lives, which may not be the most spectacular, into images. We got a lot of input from them and allowed ourselves to be carried away by their lives.
Claes: We tried to tell an ordinary story. While filming we asked ourselves some simple questions: how do you introduce the narrative? How do you jump in time? How do you explain that the characters are suddenly in a different location? The starting point was always simplicity. Olivia and I love the functional simplicity of soap operas: a limited number of spaces that make up the living environment and the playing field for the characters and their daily concerns. A soap opera is constructed according to a set of fixed formal “rules” and recognisable basic strategies. The beginning of a scene, for example, shows the facade behind which the scene is situated, or one image tells us, like a title card, that night has fallen. This uncomplicated directness is enormously appealing to us. The narrative is straightforward and light.
Rochette: In soaps, feelings are told in no uncertain terms. When you talk about love, you can use a heavy poetic register, but the beauty is to find simplicity. In one scene from Kind Hearts, Billie and Lucas are in a pizzeria having a heartfelt conversation: “Do you still love me?” “Yes, I think I do.” “Do you miss me?” And so on. We sometimes doubted whether this directness worked. It was an element in the creative process that was hard to rationalise. It is very recognisable, and that’s what makes it beautiful. The most personal becomes impersonal, and vice versa. It’s universal.
Claes: Like with pop music, it’s about how you experience emotions broadly. A pop song appeals to a lot of people because of its recognisability; it’s a kind of commonplace, an empty form. In melodramas and soap operas, too, the social is the basic material. They show how certain emotions, desires and fears are shaped within a larger community. In this sense, they’re about the surface, about the fictions with which we build our world, about how a social domain is shaped by humankind. Kind Hearts is about that as well. Fiction is not an enlargement or a distancing, but rather a...
An extension of what we do in everyday life?
That’s a very abstract idea. Does it become tangible in any way by working on the film with the teenagers? Does it teach you something about the concept you’re describing?
Claes: At the outset, that theoretical aspect is mainly reflected in the choice of the “arena” the film is set in: the love story of a young couple. The film explores the turning point between youth and adulthood. Billie and Lucas see adulthood as a fossilised form that is approaching and that they try to relate to. At some point, when Billie is unsure about living together with Lucas, she says to Romane, “It’s what people do, I guess.” Without knowing whether she really wants to. By appropriating certain words, ideas and social fictions, the adult world becomes more and more real.
How did you start the project? How did you bring about the scenes?
Rochette: Many filmmakers do research on location for months, but we don’t. We try things out with a camera as soon as possible and look for a way of working and a relationship between us and the characters. Which scenes should we set up? How far can we go in fictionalising them? When do Lucas and Billie feel most comfortable speaking?
Claes: In the beginning they asked if they were “doing a good job”. The notion of “good” or “bad” first had to go for it to work, because the performative idea of “playing a scene” had to be abandoned. As the focus of the film became clearer to us, it also became easier for Billie and Lucas. We try many things and then suddenly it works. Not every scene comes about in the same way. Certain scenes in the film are the result of “documentary” observation, others are situations that we observed or discussed beforehand and that we liked and re-enacted on camera. So the fictional aspect is approached in a quite documentary way, providing it with an existential quality, for the very reason that its construction and beauty become visible.
Rochette: We like to capture a situation very straightforwardly: long conversations in which you see both Billie and Lucas speaking and reacting to what is being said. You see them thinking, hesitating and searching for words. We couldn’t always grasp this while observing them with the camera, so for certain scenes we opted for a classic mise-en-scène with a lot of space for aimlessness.
Claes: There’s something “extensive” about fiction; you can take something small and give it a lot of attention. We take a lot of care and precision in organising things in an image. Concrete things like “that bottle shouldn’t be there”, or “you don’t need to say that because it distracts us too much from the essence”. The editing hones it even more, every word weighed and pondered.
Kind Hearts works with the format of the love story, a core element of cinema. We often see the formation of a couple through all sorts of intrigues, misunderstandings and twists of fate, the love-story core being an alibi for a film’s cinematic suspense. In Kind Hearts, that core turns empty; it is named so often that it becomes unnameable. By putting love under a microscope, it evaporates.
Claes: What occupies them is excessively meaningful and meaningless at the same time. Especially when a relationship comes to an end, you notice that this initial truth has suddenly lost its meaning. Love is pure fiction; you look at someone who means incredibly much to you, but that person hasn’t actually changed. We like to portray love as something ordinary, something “everyday”. Especially with first loves, everything has a lot of meaning. It comes with a certain vocabulary that sometimes seems clichéd but also offers a universal story of what happens between two people.
You filmed a lot, and a lot of footage didn’t make it into the film. How do you reduce and select? Do you do that alone or together with your editor, Dieter Diependaele?
Rochette: We worked with Dieter in different stages. The first montage period was really part of our research. We had shot a number of (test) scenes using different strategies, such as scenes in which we gave Lucas and Billie some lines from a film or a soap beforehand, but also scenes that were purely observed. Before we start working with Dieter, we watch the rushes and edit versions of scenes ourselves. Then we try out all sorts of things with him and discuss how, for example, certain elements of conversations go to the heart of what we are looking for or how they lead away from it. We use this knowledge to start filming again, followed by a new editing period. The different editing periods teach us how to look at our own film and better formulate what we’re looking for. Both the filming and the editing become increasingly concrete. In the end, it’s mainly about structure, rhythm and balance.
The camera and lenses you used, the colour processing of the images and the camera work are all very clear and open. The shots are very consistent, in service of the characters. To me, that is in keeping with the film’s nearly translucent narrative structure. The way you work with images feels transparent.
Rochette: Just like we did with Grands travaux, we worked with 16mm lenses. The main reason is the depth of field. We like that when you film someone the space around the character is legible and not too blurry. Gerard-Jan and I are looking for an image that doesn’t need to deliver, that doesn’t immediately impose a certain meaning through its texture or “look”.
Claes: As Bresson says: “No postcard-ism.” Bresson speaks beautifully of images that have been smoothed over, as if flattened with an iron. A single image doesn’t have to tell anything; movement is only created through editing and style. That transparency is a desire to leave everything as open as possible. The struggle is that meaning pops up everywhere. The real art is to keep meaning away as much as possible.
Why is that important?
Claes: There’s a dream of making a work that has its own raison d’être. Of the film as a whole becoming a projection surface. Film is the art of the surface. In soaps, that surface becomes a substance in people’s lives. Those forms are pure surface, but they do take on a substantial role in people’s lives. We very much like approaching those surfaces as matter.
The film represents the everydayness of Billie and Lucas’s existence and through that reflects our own lives. There’s universalism in banality. But that form is also a kind of anti-cinema.
Claes: Documentaries often offer you a reality that’s larger-than-fiction. “An incredible story; if it were fiction, you wouldn’t have believed it.” I think our documentary starting point is very simple: “Look at the world around you.” There are beautiful stories to be found everywhere, by conceiving a love for everything and care for the whole. That’s not a contrarian attitude. It’s really about Billie and Lucas for us. You could make a counter-movie that deals with “banality” conceptually. We don’t want that, we’re not interested in that.
You remain interested in what they’re like and, more generally, how young people in Brussels today deal with love and relationships.
Claes: I actually think it’s more abstract. It’s about a category of young people, how they experience the world. There’s a confusion in someone young that is almost philosophical.
The interest is more philosophical than ethnographic.
You often make static scenes in which young people are talking to each other. What does the talking mean to you as a cinematic gesture?
Claes: It has to do with the camera being subservient, creating a playing field, linked with the desire to film in a certain way. There’s something static about our way of looking. Speaking rhymes with that. On the other hand, I like language to be an exploration of forms. Which words do you use to convey certain emotions – also in the context of a film that explores the boundary between the personal and impersonal?
Words are always borrowed, Derrida says.
Claes: They’re borrowed, but the way of playing with them remains personal. That fascinates us. The playing is very visible.
In How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin describes how words can be “performative” rather than “informative”. We talk all day long, and this is usually considered as exchanging information. But Austin points out that words can be actions, for instance the words “I hereby pronounce you man and wife”. We perform these “speech acts” all the time, forming our friendships and relationships by speaking about them in a specific way.
Claes: These speech acts, as Austin calls them, create a reality. Reality is therefore constructed. We’re fascinated by the game in which people construct their reality and by the patterns, formats if you will, that are contained in it. That sounds theoretical, but that’s where the documentary element, the love of observation, comes from. How people speak and look at moments that are important in their lives. How they create meaning. In the knowledge that life is a game, a real game with real consequences.
I feel that people experience and interpret your film very differently. People relate the film to themselves in different ways. Now that it’s finished, what is it like for you to open the film to the outside world?
Rochette: Even more than with other films, we made choices from the start. We started editing with clear frameworks and a desire not to beat around the bush. We wanted to keep only what’s necessary. Because of that transparency and lightness, we couldn’t really judge what the film would become, and it became, also for us, something elusive.
Claes: Filmmaking always causes a kind of alienation. But because of the lightness, there sometimes seemed to be less to be alienated from. At one point we asked ourselves the question, “What have we made exactly?” We always asked ourselves that, but more so now. When we showed the film to others, we noticed very clearly that people watched it with their own frame of reference, also in terms of relationships. Maybe people have to get used to the freedom the film offers. Most films clearly hint at what to think and how to feel. Films often have a clear moral agenda.
A trajectory that you as a spectator have to follow.
Rochette: Films can be very manipulative. We try to make films that offer an open space rather than a trajectory with clear reference points for emotions or interpretations. But it’s also a matter of ethics. We worked with the relationship of a real couple. There are limits to fiction in this case, and that forces us to keep the manipulation at bay.
Can you imagine a future film being entirely fictional?
Rochette: It’s a question we ask ourselves. We have a strong desire to make films in a certain way. That way is close to forms of fiction, but working with real elements creates a tension that is very valuable and brings an openness that we can’t invent.
Claes: I do look differently at our next work now, and I have a fictional idea for the next film. But bringing a character to life within the world I have in mind is a whole other story. Working with actors is very different. The rules are different. A certain kind of ethic is lost. When Luc Dardenne was asked why they had started making fiction films, he said, “We wanted to make films with people who could die or kill.” That’s where documentaries end, isn’t it?
You don’t want to film people dying?
Claes: Not for the time being, no! Does that surprise you?
I have the feeling that the documentary aspect is both exciting and necessary for you. The pursuit of control and precision is faced with chaotic reality. Is that tension important to you?
Claes: There’s a desire for control. A frame is made very precisely. That’s also a Sisyphean task as you will never achieve total control. But striving for it anyway, being obsessed with it, creates an interesting tension. The moment you say “I have everything under control...”
What do you lose then?
Rochette: The film now feels like a victory precisely because of the specific creative process, and that notion of victory would disappear. Many scenes fail. Something has to happen that...
...that you can’t make up.
Claes: Lucas is a producer, he makes music. When you make fiction, you have to make up things like that. Whereas now the world offers us things, and we look for forms for them. That’s what I like about Meyy’s music, for example. It’s music that’s quite far away from me, but it presents itself as material you have to work with, which does give it a special value to us.
The puzzle is always in relation to what’s already there. Working from reality is a constraint that simultaneously generates a lot.
Rochette: We were bolder in that respect than in previous films. We decided we would impose certain restrictions on ourselves, such as the course of the seasons, which we stuck to. That was actually very liberating. The choice of certain restrictions and a narrative structure created a space in which we could let our authorship show itself.
At the end of Kind Hearts, Billy and Lucas walk away together and the film ends with an image of the blue sky. A relationship has ended, but the promise of a new story is already there. Your previous film, Grands travaux, ends in a tragic way because the teenagers fail to get access to a language and a culture. That’s why the final scene is so moving, when they’re in an electronics shop listening to pop music. They’re drawn into a popular culture that never really seems to be theirs.
Claes: Barry then says, “The world is a code I don’t understand.” It’s different in this film, they do begin to understand the world. In that sense, Kind Hearts is a sequel to Grands travaux, because the young people are a bit older and more embedded in the codes of society. They can move in it more freely.
Interview with Billie Meeussen
The film portrays something that happened a while ago. How do you look back on those scenes, which are very personal, but also “acted” in a way? To what extent do you recognise who you really were then? Or do you consider yourself more of an actress?
Billie Meeussen: I wouldn’t say an actress. I see myself as I was then. Usually when you look back at the past, you have memories of how you experienced everything. Many of them you forget or adapt to what you wish to remember. They’re always slightly distorted, but because it was captured on film there’s proof of how things really happened, how we acted them. It was so weird sometimes that I wondered, “Was this reality?” We gave a lot of our own input, doing as we normally would, but there were also scenes that were more focused. I couldn’t remember afterwards which scenes were staged and which were our “own” free conversation. I don’t really remember which part was reality and which part was acted.
The line between reality and fiction has blurred?
It has. I laughed a lot when we watched the film. It was funny to see how we talked to each other, and I was surprised that I ever said some things. I didn’t know anymore if I said that because I was being guided or if it came from myself. In the beginning of the film, I ask if Lucas and I would move in together. I never considered that in real life, but I did say it in that scene and I don’t think it was something Olivia and Gerard-Jan asked me to say.
Do you think the filming had an impact on how you remember your relationship or even how the relationship between you and Lucas and between you and Romane has developed or changed?
I don’t think it changed the memory of my relationship with Lucas or Romane. The scenes with Romane were more acted. With Lucas, we filmed a lot of scenes after we had already separated. We did scenes where we were still together, and we also re-enacted the situation when we broke up. But it came to us very naturally. We could do the scene as if it was really that time. We talked about it a lot, so we knew very well why we broke up. When we did those scenes, we didn’t see each other a lot anymore, also because of COVID. So we saw each other mostly for filming, shooting the scenes in which we were still together. It wasn’t difficult, because we broke up on good terms so our relationship stayed the same.
In the beginning of the film, Lucas asks you to pose for a picture. You feel uncomfortable. Your character becomes very self-conscious when her picture is taken. At the same time, you don’t seem to feel uncomfortable around the camera. How are you and your character different? What’s your relationship to the camera as the character Billie and as yourself?
I don’t think there’s any difference between myself and my “character”. I usually don’t like to be in the spotlight at all, and I don’t like to be photographed, so my reaction is real. When I see that first scene, I see that I’m not at ease. As we went on, there was more trust and things went better. I gradually started feeling very comfortable with Gerard-Jan and Olivia.
What’s it like to do a scene? How did you work with Olivia and Gerard-Jan?
During the first take, we talked about different subjects, after a small hint of the direction the conversation could take. Gerard-Jan took notes and mentioned the things he found interesting and then we did it again, but shorter. I liked remembering what I had talked about. Sometimes it was tiring if there were a lot of takes and we had to do them again and again.
You were always on the other side of the camera, without being able to see what the result would be. What was it like to finally watch the film?
I had thought I would be watching myself mostly, that it would be confrontational to see myself. I found it very exciting. When I watched the film, I mainly saw the story and it seemed that I was watching a character and not so much myself. A lot of memories came back, too. Like when you talk to friends and reminisce, that’s what it was like when we saw the film. Lucas and I laughed a lot at the memories that came back.
Were they memories of the filming or of the events that the scenes refer to?
The filming. I felt the way I felt while filming. Other people who’ll watch the film won’t feel that way. It’s hard to imagine how the film will come across. I’m curious about the reactions of friends who know me well. Whether they think it’s truthful or not.
Is it truthful for you?
Yes, even though certain things are scripted. People can’t see where we had lines and where we didn’t. We adapted the dialogues to ourselves. I didn’t feel I had to act. At one point I said to Lucas: “A lot of people want to live in a film, that scenes of their lives are filmed.” I often think in a very cinematic way about my own life. But now there’s the film about me. If I wanted to, I could have played an idealised version of myself. I could have thought about it, put on makeup. I never thought about that while filming. Only afterwards did I realise I could have created an idealised image of myself.
Maybe you didn’t need an alter ego after all.
Indeed. I’m not the kind of person to take on an alter ego, I’m not like that. I’m too honest. I would have also liked to see myself in a cinematic film, with costumes and characters. That would have also been fun. Still, I don’t know if I could act. I can’t deduce that from this film.
You now know that you’re good at being yourself.
While you’re also constantly changing. I do recognise myself, but I’m already different now. You look back on a self you no longer are. The main reason for me to join was that I was interested in having a record of what I was like at that moment. They were following us, adapting to our lives. Only during the montage did I start thinking about the fact that there was going to be a film about us.
Interview with Lucas Roefmans
Why did you want to participate, and how did you start working together?
Lucas Roefmans: The first time I saw Olivia and Gerard-Jan was in religion class in high school. The teacher said: “These are two directors who have come to observe all classes. Just be yourself.” Olivia and Gerard-Jan sat on the right at the back of the classroom. They were even at our end-of-year party to observe. One day I approached them to ask what they were doing. A month later, they asked me to do an interview. They said they were looking for a couple. I never had any doubts, it was all very spontaneous. Before I knew it, we were filming.
You re-enacted parts of your own life. What was it like to do something quite intimate in front of the camera?
I never felt uncomfortable. Gerard-Jan and Olivia have a body language, an aura that makes you feel very safe. We filmed in many different contexts, and sometimes I completely forgot that we were filming.
For the film, you’re constructing conversations. Do you recognise this from your own life, the searching for a way of talking, a way of expressing yourself?
I think we all unconsciously have that same question: “How do I come across?” In the beginning we did dialogues and had to do the same thing ten times in a row, stopping when I was too tired. But by the end, we only did it three times and they liked it. Unconsciously, I learned what they were looking for. I can’t say I got better at acting. I did the same thing, but it was more in line with what they expected of me. I didn’t know what to do, but unconsciously knew what they wanted.
Are you Lucas, or are you also a bit of an actor?
I have always remained myself. Nothing in the film is a fake Lucas. From the start Gerard-Jan and Olivia said that everything had to remain realistic. Scenes like the one where Billie and I split up were very natural to do. After we finished the film, they filmed us and asked us a few questions, saying they thought it was special that we thought it was so normal to break up on camera. We thought about that afterwards: it’s because we’re ourselves. It was really like that when we broke up. The underlying reason why we broke up is also in the film. In the film it’s overexposed or simplified, but it’s based on the truth.
The film is a reconstruction of a part of your life. When you’re watching do you experience the same emotions you experienced when filming?
The thing that touched me most when I first watched the film, was the scene of our breakup. I saw the emotions on our faces and only then relived that moment. I felt that we had done a good job of re-enacting it, that it was recognisable. But when we shot the scene in the restaurant, we were more concerned with the structure of the scene, with the technique, and less with the emotions themselves. It made me more emotional to watch it than to do it.
Were those emotions more palpable from a distance than in the moment?
During the filming you’re focused. We felt safe enough to be able to show our vulnerability, but repeating the scenes makes you feel less and less.
What was it like to watch the film?
Olivia and Gerard-Jan never showed us anything during the filming. The filming seemed very chaotic. They came to film at all sorts of moments in my life, shooting scenes in different places. I couldn’t imagine the film would have a logical structure. When I saw the film, I was surprised to see how they managed to keep everything under control. When Olivia and Gerard-Jan asked me what I thought of it, I was trembling and couldn’t answer. I still can’t. I’m very grateful that a film has been made about the most beautiful period of my life, my youth.
Images from Kind Hearts (Olivia Rochette & Gerard-Jan Claes, 2022)