Documentary explores what it means to look different

Summary

The award-winning film What About Eric? digs into the hot-button issue of the year in Flanders as it follows an aspiring musician from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Portrait of the artist as a black man

If the dozen reviews and TV guide blurbs in the local press are to be believed, What About Eric? is one of those warm, uplifting coming-of-age stories about an aspiring music artist trying to find success, and his place in this world.

But about five minutes into the movie, when the eponymous character describes his relocation to a small Flemish town as a teenager, it becomes clear that directors Lennart Stuyck and Ruben Vermeersch have higher aspirations for this film that won the award for Best Belgian Documentary at the Docville film festival in May.

In that early voiceover, 30-year-old Eric Kabongo (pictured) narrates how he and his five siblings first settled into a social housing project in Waregem, West Flanders, after migrating from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Five years later, circumstances pushed Kabongo, then a young man, to again move into the same apartment block.

“Sometimes I just feel like I was made to stay here,” he says in an empty, matter-of-fact tone as the camera pans to his cramped, dilapidated apartment, which swiftly becomes a symbol for the socioeconomic ladder he has failed to ascend, giving viewers a first hint that this documentary is about to touch on themes of poverty, sense of belonging and race in a way that few other Flemish films have. 

“We didn’t want to make a film about racism though. That was absolutely not our intention,” says Stuyck, 27. “That just happened to us while filming, so we said: ‘Well, we can’t keep ignoring this.’” 

A need for honesty

The directors, both graduates of the RITS film department in Brussels, initially planned to follow Kabongo, who goes by the stage name of Krazy-E, as he pursued his dream of becoming a successful hip-hop artist. 

We didn’t want to make a film about racism. That was not our intention

- Lennart Stuyck

But in the course of the three years during which they shadowed him, the directors gradually realised that any honest portrait of Kabongo had to address the force that hangs heavy over his life – that of racial prejudices, discrimination, and at times plain racism.

“If you want to tell Eric’s story as honestly as possible, that’s a large part of his life. That has to be in there,” says Vermeersch, also 27, who first met Kabongo when he was looking for a director for one of his music videos.

The documentary comes after a series of incidents that have pushed questions about race in Flanders to the forefront, with, for instance, recent reports about endemic racism in the Antwerp police corps; with a prominent VRT journalist speaking out against “a racist undercurrent in Flanders”; with KVS ending its 10-year collaboration with De Morgen following the paper’s publication of a sports column the arts centre deemed bigoted toward Africans; and with leading N-VA politician Liesbeth Homans’ statement that racism is “a relative notion” and “today mostly used as an excuse for personal failures”.

Tales of teenage years

The film, which was partly realised with funding support from Flanders Image and the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, follows Kabongo at a crossroads in his life – still haunted by financial debts and mistakes from his past, but determined to make a fresh start with his music.

The directors – Stuyck usually behind the camera and Vermeersch holding the microphone – attended rehearsals, recording sessions, video shoots and concerts and tagged along to concerts and meetings with Kabongo's agent.

At the same time, the film also has Kabongo recount tales from his teenage years, many of them evoking the small, day-to-day particularities of being black and poor in a middle-class, mostly white environment.

His classmates’ taunts that blacks don’t become doctors or lawyers in this country, for instance, persuade him that his horizons are limited early on, while his mother’s inability to buy him new trainers at the start of the school year becomes an excuse to steal them, a misdemeanour that paves the way for later felonies like drug-dealing and violent assault.

Even in the present, Kabongo’s inability to find a parking spot in front of his building block can become a sudden, maddening reminder of how trapped he feels, sending him into a blind rage. The film shows all this without much explanation and, but for a couple of scenes that feel all too staged, to great fly-on-the wall effect.

All about Eric

If at times it seems like there’s a sharp disconnect between Kabongo’s pensive, insightful storytelling and his dark past, that’s because there is – something the directors themselves struggled to understand. “And then you notice that it’s those very little things that begin to trigger you and can cause you to veer from a certain path very quickly,” Vermeersch says. 

Because he fights it, he creates even more resistance against himself

- Lennart Stuyck

“When you don’t feel welcome somewhere, when you’re not at home somewhere, when you’re always seen in a certain category, perhaps you even begin to act accordingly.”

Yet the directors, who say they wanted to make a film for precisely those people who would normally walk away from documentaries, feel ambivalent about having their first feature labelled as just a film about racism, instead describing it as one about Kabongo first and foremost, and the vicious circle racism creates in him second.

“It gives him the feeling: ‘I’m not welcome here,’ so he fights against it, but because he fights against it, he creates even more resistance against himself,” Stuyck says.

For the directors, that’s also why Kabongo so obstinately pursues a music career, why he won’t give up even when haunted by doubts that maybe he’s just not that talented. Kabongo isn’t after money, fame, or success, Vermeersch says: “For Eric, it’s much deeper than that. That music is a way to be somebody.”   

Contempt and hostility

One of the most powerful – but hardest to watch – scenes comes toward the end of the movie and takes place at the Waregem horse race, an annual Flemish fixture and an event Kabongo had wanted to attend since he was a kid.

In spite of their dapper tweed suits, complete with trilby hats, Kabongo and his two friends (pictured above) stand out from the rest of the well-heeled crowd in the VIP section of the stands. The tension mounts as they make their way through the crowds to place their bets. The camera breathes down Kabongo’s neck so the viewer sees what he sees, resulting in an almost physical experience of what it’s like to look different in a small West Flemish town. 

That was a moment that we realised we were doing something right

- Lennart Stuyck

Visitor after visitor stares at Kabongo as he walks past, their faces a mix of curiosity, humour, contempt and sometimes outright hostility. “Will.i.am,” one person says laughing and pointing, referring to the African American pop artist. “Isn’t Carnival over yet?” another woman mutters under her breath.

From afar, a male voice can be heard telling Kabongo to return to where he came from. The camera quickly spins and becomes unsteady, until suddenly, we see Kabongo wrestling with a man at least a head taller than him, one of his friends trying to pull them apart as female bystander screams for them to stop. Finally, the camera stops moving and focuses on the man, blood smeared over his chin.

The aftermath of that August day in 2011 was a mandatory anger-management course, a €1,000 fine and a three-year prison sentence on probation for Kabongo.

But however deleterious the consequences for Kabongo, the event also offered much-needed affirmation for the directors at what they say was the most difficult moment in the shooting process, when it felt like not much was happening in Kabongo’s life.

“For us, it was a moment that we realised that we were doing something right,” Stuyck says, “that there was something there that we could and had to narrate.”

What About Eric? will be released on DVD by Dalton Distribution in October.

Award-winning documentary What About Eric? explores what it means to look different

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