Filmmaker Manu Riche makes fiction debut with Problemski Hotel


Flemish documentary filmmaker Manu Riche finally found the story he wanted to make into a fiction feature: Problemski Hotel, based on Dimitri Verhulst’s novel of the same name, opens in cinemas this week

Ghosts in the machine

In 2001, Flemish author Dimitri Verhulst visited an asylum centre in Flanders to write a series of articles for the newspaper De Morgen. Manu Riche read those articles and has carried them around with him ever since.

Growing up in Hasselt but living in Brussels for the last 30 years, Riche is known for creative documentaries such as Tempo of a Restless Soul, the biopic of musician Tom Barman, and, more recently, Snake Dance, in which he traces the origins of the atomic bomb.

After more than 25 years of work on the big and small screen – and a stint in playwriting – he’s now broken into fiction filmmaking with Problemski Hotel, based on Verhulst’s 2003 surrealist novel that followed the newspaper series. It opens across Belgium on Wednesday.

“Like in all of Dimitri’s work, it was more than the subject that touched me. He developed his style in it and made the story his own,” Riche (pictured, right) tells me from Bozar’s Horta Hall, across the street from the Brussels building where Problemski Hotel was filmed. “I’m touched by what reality brings to me, and I think he had the same sense of documentary feel in that story. But he also used his imagination.”

Doing the impossible

Riche, 51, finally gave the book to his long-time collaborator, scriptwriter Steve Hawes. “‘You cannot make a film out of this,’ he told me. ‘It’s not a narrative, it’s got too many characters, it has everything you can’t do in a drama.’ That was sort of a reason for me to think of it as a drama,” Riche says, laughing.

The pair managed the adaptation by embracing everything that made it difficult, in fact, retaining Verhulst’s absurdist style, incorporating characters in a patchwork of experiences and using the building to visualise the idea of being caught in an endless cycle.

The staff are also survivors, refugees from the big, bureaucratic system in which we live

- Director Manu Riche

The building is more a character in the movie than a setting, admits Riche, who searched for the right structure before stumbling upon the BNP Paribas Fortis bank building in the centre of town. The workers happened to be moving out in preparation for tearing it down (to make way for a whole new building in the same spot).

Designed in the 1960s, the office block is a monument to capitalism, Riche says, “and shows the power and the wealth of the industry. It’s an enormous building with a very rich interior.”

Rather than try to hide the office infrastructure, he used it, blending its sense of a rigid structure of economic conformity with the plight of the asylum-seekers, and also – even more blatantly – of the staff. As one moves from room to room with a group carrying a huge Christmas tree, confused as to where to place it, another speed-walks through the long corridors and eerily empty open spaces. The camera cuts back to them over and over again.

Problemski Hotel is a place where life never really begins, and never really ends. “I think the staff are asylum-seekers themselves,” explains Riche. “They are survivors, refugees from the big, bureaucratic system in which we live. And they try to make the best of it.”

Neutral observer

As does Bipul, the refugee who acts as the film’s narrator and distant observer. Though whether he’s actually a refugee, no one can say. In a fascinating plot device – and departure from Verhulst’s character – Bipul doesn’t officially exist. Found in a toilet at Brussels Airport with amnesia and no ID, he has no idea who he is or where he comes from. He is the epitome of the refugee identity crisis.

Played by Brussels-based dancer Tarak Haleby, Bipul has an enormous influence on the other residents and yet is completely neutral in every interaction. Calm and distanced, he’s just this side of unnerving but thoroughly captivating.

It’s difficult for my generation to understand what most of these refugees are escaping

- Manu Riche

“Haleby is not an actor,” says Riche. “I wanted somebody who was able to be completely taken up by the building. He’s almost a ghost of the space, he’s there and not there. He is the go-between.” But he did have certain professional skills that came in handy. “He can stand still, so it was like he was rooted there. That’s more difficult for actors – they just cannot stand still.”

And then the question every filmmaker hates to hear: What’s your message? Riche grimaces, but only a little.

He mentions how his own parents had to leave Belgium for France during the Second World War. “But it’s difficult for anyone from my generation to understand what most of these refugees are escaping,” he says. “I can understand why they want to come here. And we have to adapt; this is a new world we are going to live in. Maybe the film is saying, this is it; there is no solution, so don’t try to find one. There is no right way to deal with it, we just have to do it.”

Review: Problemski Hotel

In an asylum centre somewhere in Brussels, Bipul has a trump card. As one of the characters says: “No one knows where he comes from, so they can’t send him back.”

Bipul was found in Brussels with amnesia and no ID, so he is Problemski Hotel’s somewhat permanent resident. He speaks English, Farsi, a little Dutch and a bit of Arabic, making him a useful translator as he is dragged into conflict after conflict among a motley crew of refugees all hoping to receive the letter that tells them they can stay in Belgium.

Based on the 2003 book of the same name by Flemish author Dimitri Verhulst, Problemski Hotel – largely filmed in English – is documentary filmmaker Manu Riche’s fiction debut. It’s a curious but successful mix of tragedy, comedy and surrealism that calls to mind the Scandinavian style of absurdism by directors like Bent Hamer.

It might seem a strange choice for Riche, a long-time director of sombre documentaries. And yet the real-life asylum situation can at times seem unreal, as strangers in a strange land wade through miles of paperwork and wait among the rest of the world’s lost souls.

And so they do in Problemski Hotel, which weaves the residents’ sometimes horrific, sometimes darkly comic stories with a blossoming romance between Bipul – played with a calm detachment by Brussels-based dancer Tarak Haleby – and new Russian arrival Lidia (Evgenia Brendes of Toneelgroep Amsterdam).

Lidia wants to take off for London, but Bipul is comfortable where he is – the personification of a building filled with identities in question. ★★★☆