Black takes Belgian cinema where it has never gone before


The new film by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality in its portrayal of Brussels’ inner-city gangs

A story that “needed to be told”

Black, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s electrifying new film, opens with what could be just another Tuesday in Brussels.

Armed with a fist-size rock, a teen rapidly walks up to a car idling at a red light. In one sweeping motion, he smashes the window and snatches the driver’s purse from the passenger seat. A civic-duty minded bystander promptly goes in pursuit but is left seething when the boy slips into a public elevator a fraction of a second before its doors close. 

And then something odd happens. Rather than stick with the angle of the angry, white man, as, figuratively speaking, most local filmmakers have, El Arbi and Fallah thrillingly turn the tables of Belgian cinema and follow the teenager down to his Maghreb neighbourhood in what doubles as a mission statement for the film at large.

Based on two novels by the master of young adult fiction, Dirk Bracke, Black unflinchingly, and sometimes crudely, tells a love story between two youths who belong to rival gangs – a story that begins in a police department and ends on the cold, marble floor of a train station. 

“A character like Mavela has never had a voice; you’ve never heard a character like Marwan,” says El Arbi, 27, referring to the film’s lead roles. “Moroccans in films were always either terrorists or criminals, or the complete opposite – the only truly stand-up guys.” 

Between fiction and reality

To a soundtrack of thumping French rap and an undercurrent of violence, El Arbi and Fallah, who grew up in Antwerp and Vilvoorde respectively, introduce the viewers to the bleak world of Brussels’ inner-city youth that has never been depicted in local cinema before.

It is the familiar picture that occasionally spills into brief news reports, one in which bored and nihilistic teens careen freely between petty crimes and acts of unspeakable violence. (Stromae, he of the melancholy songs about the daily soul-sucking grind, absent fathers and our addiction to social media, declined to collaborate on the movie’s soundtrack because he felt the film was too harsh). 

The lives of the black and brown youths at the heart of the film, which opens this week across Belgium, largely play out in and around metro stations like Ossegem and Beekkant, inconspicuous by day but gnarly at night; the African quarter of Matongé, which courses through Elsene; and the streets of Molenbeek, the heavily Moroccan neighbourhood that has been gentrifying in fits and starts and where the unemployment rate has for years hovered around 30%.

“The violence they use is so awful and excessive that you can’t keep denying its existence,” says Fallah, 29. “We felt like this story needed to be told. We know this world; we understand some of its psychology.”

We know this world; we understand some of its psychology

- Director Adil El Arbi

Pointing out that many young people with migrant roots grapple with questions of identity in a society that perpetually regards them as foreigners, he adds: “In gangs, these people feel like they’re someone. The toughness you find on the streets there is typical for what is happening in these neighbourhoods.”

Though there have been movies centred on Ghent’s Turkish community (Turquaze, Trouw met mij), after Nabil Ben Yadir’s 2009 Les Barons, Fallah and El Arbi are only the second Belgians of Moroccan descent to tell the story of Brussels’ inner-city life. But they forcefully reject the burden of representation and underline their prerogative as filmmakers to tell of the good, the bad and the ugly. 

“It’s not our problem that there never was a Moroccan director before us,” El Arbi says. “It’s not our responsibility to prove anything to a community. Our only responsibility is to tell a story as efficiently as we can to the widest possible audience.”

Still, the pair make no qualms about their desire to put some much-needed colour into the local cinema scene. Following their 2011 breakout short Broeders (Brothers) and last year’s off-the-rails Image, this is the third time the filmmakers have chosen to tell a story partially or wholly set in Brussels’ migrant communities – a term the filmmakers themselves reject, arguing that the idea of a uniform Moroccan community is false. 

It’s (not) just cinema

Lofty ambitions aside, Black is a pioneering film in as many aspects as it is a problematic one. Its grim story of a gang war is, after all, a far cry from the lives of most youths of migrant descent in Brussels. 

This fact seems to be getting lost somewhere between the directors’ insistence that they modelled the story after Bracke’s novels – which in turn were inspired by real events – and their relish in telling anecdotes that seemingly bear out the thug-life narrative of the film. (Among other incidents, a fight broke out during a shoot in the Marollen, one crew member was threatened with physical violence during a Matongé shoot, and one of the actors was arrested on charges of what appears to be gang-related activity.)

The movie’s verisimilitude doesn’t help set the record straight either. The filmmakers’ own ethnic backgrounds and their decision to cast unprofessional actors means that this movie gets just about all the little things right – the multilingual reality of Brussels, the simmering racial tensions between Moroccans and blacks, the playful banter between Marwan and Mavela, down to the unofficial uniform of the city’s on-the-dole youths (hideous cuffed track pants).

Speaking on the day of the film’s preview screening at the Ghent Film Festival, Molenbeek native Aboubakr Bensaihi, who plays Marwan (pictured above, right), at first seems indifferent to the damning portrayal of Belgian youth of Moroccan descent and, for that matter, his own neighbourhood. “This is cinema, so it’s just a story,” he says.

But when pressed, Bensaihi, 19, admits to being irked when reporters conflate him with the character he portrays in the film. Among other offences, Marwan shoplifts, smokes weed, gets arrested (twice) and appears to have given up on the idea of going to school. 

“They ask me all these questions, but I can see what they’re getting at,” he says. “So I corner them before they can corner me, and I tell them that I had to play a character, and that character is not me.”

In person, he explains, he also tried to show reporters that he is different from Marwan. “Through the way I talk, through my clothes and through the small details, which will hopefully change something in people’s minds”.

“Time to grow up”

Martha Canga Antonio, 20, who gives a breathless performance as Mavela, admits to feeling ambivalent about both the film’s narrative and the one that has come to surround it. In an interview with the Flemish daily De Morgen, she debunked the “Slumdog Millionaire-type story being created around them” and the idea that the actors were all street kids.

“It doubles in meaning because of its portrayal of reality, but it nevertheless remains a film,” she says, referring to the movie’s focus on street gangs. “You want to raise awareness around the issue because people don’t like to discuss it. At the same time, you don’t want to focus exclusively on that. It’s a complex feeling.”

It would be wrong, she says, to stop telling these stories with Black. “If we can push ahead and also show other aspects of what it’s like, I think we’re on the right track.”

If we don’t tell these stories, no one will

- Adil El Arbi

Law enforcement officials and researchers take wildly diverging views on the phenomenon of Brussels gangs. According to 2012 figures from the Brussels prosecutor's office, the capital counts 31 gangs and 566 gang members.

Local criminologists, however, say there simply are no US-style urban gangs in Belgian cities but rather groups of “seldom organised” youths who “only occasionally cluster together and have a varying composition”. 

Even though El Arbi and Fallah are writing local cinema history by casting a dark-skinned black woman in the lead role and giving all the meaty roles to migrant youths, they also reinforce vicious stereotypes of black men as sexual predators, of young Moroccans as thugs and of Molenbeek as an economic wasteland where hope goes to die.

But the filmmakers are quick to fend off such criticism. El Arbi and Fallah, who love to present themselves as the bad boys of Belgian cinema – be it through liberally dropping the f-bomb or embracing street culture through their speech and attire – say they are not interested in being or portraying Uncle Toms.

“We can’t let the cinema and art be suffocated by misplaced political correctness because that doesn’t help,” El Arbi says. “If we don’t tell these stories, no one will. It’s time to grow up. We can talk about these problems, and we don’t need to avoid them. That’s what people of Moroccan descent but also Belgians in general are – masters of avoidance. Fuck avoiding, let’s talk about this.”

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.

in 5 movie tickets sold in Flanders is to see a Flemish movie


international festival nominations or prizes in 2012

1 462 160

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