Greetings from the past
The new Flemish film Groenten uit Balen doesn’t have an English title yet, and it will be a hell of a job to find one that guards the pun. Literally it translates as Vegetables from Balen, Balen being a municipality in the east of Antwerp province. But groenten in this case is a misspelling of groeten, which means greetings. “Groenten uit Balen” is the valediction of Jan Debruycker, one of the main characters in the film, at the end of his many letters to world leaders (such as presidents of the United States or the Belgian king).
Walter Van den Broeck’s Groenten uit Balen catapults us 40 years back in time
It’s taken from life; the father of screenwriter Walter Van den Broeck (pictured) used to send missives to world leaders with good, solid advice. Or so he thought. Because, as does Jan’s wife in the film, Van den Broeck’s mother used to throw the letters in the stove.
Van den Broeck, now 70, has inherited his father’s imagination, but he channels it artistically. With more than 20 novels, short story collections and novellas, and almost as many theatre plays, he’s one of Flanders’ most prolific writers of the past 45 years.
And one of the most important ones, documenting the metamorphoses of Flemish society and tackling the somewhat surreal underpinnings of Belgium and its dynasty in novels like Brief aan Boudewijn (Letter to Boudewijn) and his magnum opus Het beleg van Laken (Laken Besieged). The scope and importance of the latter matches Hugo Claus’ Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) and Louis Paul Boon’s De Kapellekensbaan (Chapel Road).
Van den Broeck, who published his debut in 1967, rose to fame in 1972 with the play Groenten uit Balen. It told the story of the turbulent strike in 1971 – not supported by the trade unions – in the Vieille-Montagne zinc factory in Balen. After striking for a few months, the labourers’ demands were granted almost in full.
A hugely popular production, Groenten uit Balen has been performed in Flanders more than 1,000 times. It also has been filmed as a television play twice before, but the idea to make it into a movie germinated just a decade ago. Flemish television director Peter Simons contacted Van den Broeck, and the two started working on the screenplay. Tragically, in 2005 Simons died in a traffic accident. “We decided to continue the project, as a tribute to Peter but also because we really believed in this film,” says Van den Broeck.
Enter Guido Van Meir, the screenwriter of one of Flanders’ most lauded television series, Terug naar Oosterdonk (Back to Oosterdonk). Enter also Frank Van Mechelen, who directed two of the most popular Flemish films of the last decade, De indringer (The Intruder) en De hel van Tanger (Hell in Tangier).
Van den Broeck is delighted with Van Mechelen’s adaptation. “He’s a director who lets the story do the work. It’s not a film about 1971, he really guides you into that epoch.”
But how relevant is this story, 40 years later? Van den Broeck: “I think the film comes right on time. That’s a coincidence, since the project started a decade ago. But still, it teaches us that it’s worth never losing heart and, if necessary, to take matters in your own hands, even in what looks like a dead-end situation.”
It’s a film about solidarity, says Van den Broeck. “Since the strike wasn’t supported by the trade unions, the labourers didn’t get strike pay. But the families with financial problems received food parcels, doctors worked for free, and banks didn’t foreclose on mortgages.”
Though solidarity is a timeless subject, the film also “makes it possible to measure the distance between 1971 and 2011,” says Van den Broeck. “The father in the film slaps his 18-year-old daughter. Sadly, that was no exception back then. Life has gotten a lot better, surely, but we also lost things along the way – the most important being solidarity.”
“Every detail had to be correct”
The facts about the strike and all its consequences are extremely accurate. “I went to the workers, who carefully read the text. And believe me, every detail had to be correct.” The film is told, as was the play, through the eyes of the Debruycker family: father Jan, mother Clara, daughter Germaine and the grumpy grandfather, living together in a small house.
Van den Broeck chuckles when he thinks back to the play in 1972: “Within a few weeks after opening night, everyone in Balen was convinced they knew a family that was the model for the Debruyckers. I created that family because I needed three generations, representing the past, the present and the future. But they’re not based on real people.”
Groenten uit Balen is a good example of the social awareness that’s omnipresent in Van den Broeck’s work. “It’s never a goal,” he stresses. “I’m not trying to illustrate the programme of a political party. But it almost always seeps in. It’s who I am. When I read about a political decision, I always ask myself: Who benefits from it? I’m not interested in writing about the human condition because it’s simple what that is: In the end, we all die. Period. I’m interested in what happens before that. And how we live is strongly influenced by a factor we cannot choose: the world in which we live.
Groenten uit Balen
Back in the mists of the 1970s, there was a strike in Balen, a small town in the Kempen region that lies to the east of Antwerp. Walter Van den Broeck, a young Flemish teacher who helped the strikers of the zinc factory, wrote a hugely successful play based on his experience, which 40 years on is now a movie. If that suggests a cry from the barricades that echoes down the years, then think again.
The best way to approach Groenten uit Balen is as period fluff, played for laughs by an attractive cast. Eighteen-year-old Germaine Debruycker (newcomer Evelien Bosmans) is intent on enjoying herself and dreams of escaping to a better life. Her chance comes when she catches the eye of Luc (Bart Hollanders), a student who has come to Balen to show his solidarity with the strikers. The problem is getting his mind off politics and on to her.
Her father Jan (Stany Crets) is one of the strikers. He’s not keen on taking part, but lacks the courage to follow the advice of Grandpa (Michel Van Dousselaere) and cross the picket line. As the weeks pass, money becomes increasingly tight, but Jan and his wife Clara (Tiny Bertels) begin to appreciate being part of a community that pulls together.
There’s a chance here to mock everyone concerned in the strike, from the squabbling union officials who won’t back the action to the ultra-militant students pursuing their own agenda. Jan is also a figure of fun, naively firing off letters to the king, while Clara demonstrates a tangy mix of vulgarity and social pretension. The film’s one laugh-out-loud moment is when she sacrifices her principles for deluxe chocolates proffered by Luc’s uptight, middle-class parents, a nice double-act cameo from Koen De Bouw and Veerle Dobbelaere.
Director Frank Van Mechelen (De Indringer, De Hel van Tanger) maintains that the film also has a serious message about solidarity, but I’m not so sure. The strikers win a victory of sorts, and the community pulls through, but the Debruyckers keep their heads down and look after number one. That’s not what I call solidarity. (Ian Mundell)