Dominique Deruddere returns to Flanders to make English-language movie

Summary

An American in search of the perfect racing pigeon heads to West Flanders in the new film Flying Home, which opens in cinemas tomorrow

“I followed the pigeon home”

“Have you ever held a pigeon before?” Dominique Deruddere asks me, with such a critical look that I’m embarrased to admit I haven’t. Perhaps I too quickly made light of juvenile delinquents in America’s roughest inner-cities being taught pigeon fancying to set them on the straight and narrow.

Deruddere (pictured) has had plenty of experience with the birds over the last few years, planning and making the film Flying Home, which opens in cinemas this week. It’s an English-language, cross-cultural love story set in – of all places – the world of pigeon racing in West Flanders.

“It’s really nice to hold a pigeon,” the Flemish director tells me. “People have told me that when you hold a pigeon, something happens to you – and it does. Now I’ve experienced it. It gives you a sense of tranquility, a sense of rest.”

There is a reason, after all, that the pigeon – also known as a dove – “is the symbol of love and peace and is used to represent the holy spirit. You know, they could have picked another bird; there are plenty of birds,” Deruddere laughs. “But it’s the pigeon.”

It’s a feeling that Deruddere, 56, appreciates after seven years of living in LA. “A lot of people there are constantly thinking about power and money – and more power and more money,” he says. “I have the impression that they are somehow forgetting what the real purpose of life is, what is real in their lives. That might sound sentimental, but it’s also true.”

Flying Home, he says, “reminds you of something essential – what the real value of life is. For me, the movie is an ode to love and the strength of love – the fact that you cannot live without love.”

An American broker in West Flanders

The movie, filmed almost entirely in English, tells the story of Colin, a New York investment broker played by Irish actor Jamie Dornan (poised to become a superstar once Fifty Shades of Grey opens early next year) who finds himself in West Flanders on a mission to purchase one of the world’s fastest pigeons for an Arab sheik. But the good people of West Flanders don’t know this: They think Colin is a mild-mannered schoolteacher searching for his great-grandfather’s First World War grave.

It’s a story where someone makes the same journey I’ve made, but in reverse

- Dominique Deruddere

Colin’s ruse is necessary in order to acquire the bird, as its stubborn, elderly owner Jos (Jan Decleir, typecast but still wonderful) refuses to sell. But the young man begins to question his motives when he sees the passion behind the local pigeon fanciers’ hobby – and when he gets to know Jos’ pretty granddaughter, Isabelle.

It’s a bit of a departure for Deruddere, 56, whose previous work is more geared towards the dark side of love: Crazy Love (1987) finds a boy’s sexual awakening bitter, his adolescent romance tragic and his adulthood ultimately perverse, while Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1989) has the working-class title character abandoning his loving wife and children for his wealthy employer. The film for which Deruddere is most famous is Iedereen Beroemd! (Everybody’s Famous!), which was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2001. In it, a young man falls in love with a woman he has kidnapped.

Flying Home is a romantic film,” he admits, “and I think if you’re going for romance, you should really do it and just push down that gas pedal as far as you can.”

It’s also, he says, “a story where someone makes the same journey I’ve made, but in reverse.” Deruddere left Brussels for LA in 2007 to make a movie. That particular project fell through, but the director, with his wife and two kids, decided to stay on America’s west coast for the forseeable future.

It was in LA that Deruddere was reminded about Flanders’ love of pigeon racing – releasing pigeons from a designated site and recording the best times as they return to their respective roosts. The sport is extremely popular in Flanders, but when the director was a kid in Limburg, “I thought it was the most boring thing in the world,” he laughs. “And then when I moved to Brussels, I just thought of them as a nuisance, as flying rats.”

It wasn’t until he saw racing pigeons flying in the sky over LA that he realised it was an international sport, with a lot of prestige and prize money at stake. “The idea stuck in my head,” says Deruddere, who finally found time to focus on the project over the last three years.

The movie’s subplot about Colin’s great-grandfather being a soldier in the First World War and this year marking the centenary of the conflict “is just a coincidence,” he says. “I’m working on four scripts at the moment, and this is the first one to be finished.”

A big attraction of Flying Home for expats is that it was shot mostly in English. So if you’ve never experienced the formidable talents of some of the region’s most legendary actors – Jan Decleir, Josse De Pauw, Viviane De Muynck – now is your chance. “I’ve known these actors my entire life,” says Deruddere, “I am very lucky that all these people agreed to make this film with me.”

photo by Kris Dewitte

Review

FLYING HOME  ★★☆☆
An English-language cotton-candy look at love and pigeons in West Flanders

When American businessman Colin (Jamie Dornan) arrives in West Flanders, he immediately discovers two of the region’s traditions – rain and detours that go nowhere. After his car gets stuck in a field, he walks into tiny Bunderzele, soaking wet, where he is met by the pastor (Josse De Pauw) who is renting him a room.

Colin has arrived, he says, to search for the grave of his British great-grandfather, who fought in the First World War. But the audience knows the truth: Colin is a selfish, greedy yuppie, who has come to acquire – by any means possible – one of the world’s most talented racing pigeons from local yokel Jos (Jan Decleir), who thus far has refused to sell to the fabulously wealthy Arab Abdullah (Ali Sulman). The sheihk has made it clear that if Colin can acquire what he wants, he might be inclined to invest unthinkable sums of money in his firm.

The only  thing complicating matters is Jos’ innocent grandaughter Isabelle (Charlotte De Bruyne), who Colin starts to like just a bit too much.

The English-language film Flying Home is at its most successful when it takes advantage of its fish-out-of-water scenario: A New York investment banker’s adventures in rural Flanders feels fresh even if you’ve seen the idea a hundred times before. It’s also a treat to hear such classic Flemish actors as De Pauw, Decleir and Viviane De Muynck (unforgettable as the pastor’s strong-willed housekeeper) speaking English.

But in the end, it’s a tough sell to convince us that Colin – the ultimate corporate bad guy – could make a 180-degree turn in just a couple of weeks, no matter how cute Isabelle is. We see the same thing happen with Colin’s father: a lifetime of specific behaviour is washed away with a couple of stern looks and a few photos from the attic. Flying Home is fun to watch, it’s just not easy to believe.

Flemish cinema

Thanks to a federal tax shelter system, support from the Flemish Audiovisueel Fund and the rise of a new generation of talented filmmakers, Flemish cinema has been riding the crest of a wave since the mid-2000s with distinctly locally flavoured features that have appealed to both crowds and critics.
Loft - With more than one million viewers, Erik Van Looy’s Loft was the most successful movie ever made in Flanders.
Bullhead - In 2012, Michaël R Roskam’s directorial debut Rundskop (Bullhead) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
Names - Well-known current Flemish directors include Erik Van Looy, Jan Verheyen, Michaël R Roskam, Fien Troch and Felix Van Groeningen.
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in 5 movie tickets sold in Flanders is to see a Flemish movie

226

international festival nominations or prizes in 2012

1 462 160

people went to see a Flemish (co)production in Belgium in 2012