Ostend Film Festival: The movies to see, by the sea


The 11th edition of the Ostend Film Festival opens with a locally set fishing drama and continues with a diverse, internationally flavoured selection

Sink or swim

West Flemish director Gilles Coulier has been a guest of several editions of the Ostend Film Festival. His well-received short film Mont Blanc was shown on the opening night in 2012, and two years later he was one of the “Youngstars” selected by the master of the festival that year, actor Wim Willaert.

Coulier and Willaert know each other well. The actor from nearby Nieuwpoort has been involved in everything Coulier has done so far: his graduation project IJsland (Iceland) at the Sint-Lukas film school in Brussels, his well-travelled shorts Paroles and Mont Blanc, the popular TV series Bevergem. And now his much-anticipated feature debut, Cargo.

Coulier is a little nervous a couple of weeks before the festival’s opening night. “Relax, it’ll be all right,” Willaert tells him when I meet both of them in Ostend, where Cargo was shot and where it will have its world premiere.

Coulier, born in Bruges but living in Ghent, is on familiar ground. “I shot two of my shorts here, so I do have a connection with the city,” he says. “On one of my visits, I ended up in the fish auction. I immediately felt that this environment perfectly fit the themes I wanted to talk about: fatherhood, traditions and a dysfunctional family.”

Staying afloat

Cargo tells the story of three brothers from Ostend who are about to lose their elderly father, a fisherman, as well as their family’s fishing business. Without a woman in sight, the brothers are having difficulties keeping their lives afloat.

The local fish auction is also in decline, leaving many fishermen no other option than to abandon the tradition in which they’re so firmly rooted. “In Ostend, there are only 10 fishing vessels left, and in my hometown, Nieuwpoort, only two,” says Willaert. “It’s really economically run-down. The quay where we filmed Cargo has already been demolished to make place for apartments. It’s so sad.”

Francis’ romance really is like Romeo and Juliet. That true love story is what attracted me to the part

- Wim Willaert

“The situation is so tragic that it almost becomes beautiful,” adds writer and director Coulier. The social and economic devastation the local fishermen face forms the bedrock of a seemingly unavoidable catastrophe that drags down one generation after another. Even the young son of eldest brother Jean (Sam Louwyck, pictured above) sees the disastrous events unfolding before his eyes.

Under these dire circumstances, Willaert’s character, Francis, meets an illegal immigrant. He, too, faces an uncertain future. They become lovers, but Francis keeps their relationship in the closet.

“Being gay in the circles of doctors and notaries isn’t easy, so you can imagine what it must be like around fishermen,” Willaert says. “Even though there are bound to be gay people among them. Francis’ romance really is like Romeo and Juliet. That true love story is what attracted me to the part.”

No alternative

Francis’ brothers, meanwhile, get caught up with criminals. But, says Coulier, “Cargo isn’t about crime. It’s about there being no alternative when you’re down and out like these fishermen are. These men have a love of the sea, and of everything they stood for all those years. They want to fight off the end of their traditions. They are very stubborn, and I wanted my characters to be that as well.”

Willaert: “As soon as they step ashore, the brothers are all clumsiness, but out on the sea everything is simple. Not easy, but simple. They have an inner urge to be at sea.”

The fishermen and the illegal immigrants all hope to find a better future on the sea, even though the future looks pretty grim for all of them. “I’ve tried to add a sparkle of hope to this dark and tragic film,” says Coulier, “both in the relationship Francis has, and the father-son relationship of his older brother.”

Crossing borders

After a locally set opening film, the festival widens its scope for a look across the borders. Though with its guest country the Netherlands, it doesn’t stray too far. There’s the documentary Het doet zo zeer (It Hurts So Much) by Dutch writer Heleen van Royen, about van Royen’s mother losing her memory.

Other Dutch movies include two featuring Flemish actors: Ben Brand’s debut film Find This Dumb Little Bitch and Throw Her Into a River stars Wim Opbrouck, who happens to be the festival’s master of ceremonies this year, while Sam Louwyck of Cargo is part of another debut, the tragicomic road movie Monk by Ties Schenk. 

Look! is a selection of films that were chosen for their aesthetic quality – the kind that beg to be seen in the cinema and not on a TV screen

There’s also a selection of films that were chosen specifically for their aesthetic quality – the kind of films that beg to be seen in the cinema and not on a TV screen. This Look! competition includes Fortunata (Lucky), Italian director Sergio Castellitto’s tale at a newly divorced working-class mum’s struggle to achieve a simple dream .

You’ll find a number of notable Belgian premieres in Ostend as well, including Sofia Coppola’s American Civil War drama The Beguiled, a remake of the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood as an injured union soldier secretly taken in by residents of a southern girls’ boarding school.

Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s potent family drama Loveless will also have its premiere, as will a series of action-driven films such as the intense heist-gone-wrong Good Time by the American brothers Benny and Josh Safdie. And look out for Detroit by Kathryn Bigelow, about the riots that followed police violence against black residents of Detroit in the summer of 1967. 

Slew of classics

Another kind of spectacle is offered by the animation feature Loving Vincent, first shot as live action and then hand-painted over frame by frame in oils. It tells the life of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, with a special focus on his death (did he really shoot himself?), in images echoing his expressive painting style.

The festival also has some films that will most likely not be released in regular cinemas, so this could be your only chance. Art house heavyweight Bruno Dumont has written and directed the musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017), about the French icon.

There are also films by household names who sadly don’t seem to find their way into cinemas anymore, such as South Korea’s Kim Ki-Duk (The Net), or films that only tour the festival circuit, such as Ma’Rosa by Filipino filmmaker Brilliante Mendoza.

In the build-up to the festival’s award ceremony for Flemish cinema, the Ensors, you can see all the films nominated. Le ciel flamand (Flemish Heaven) by Peter Monsaert and Home by Fien Troch have gathered the most nominations. Other favourites include King of the Belgians (Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth) and Nathalie Teirlinck’s Le passé devant nous (Past Imperfect) last year’s closing film.

A week after opening with Cargo, the festival closes with another directorial debut, Alleen Eline (Only Eline) by television writer Hugo Van Laere. In the meantime, visitors will have had the opportunity to revisit Stijn Coninx’s Flemish classic Daens (1991) in a restored version.

With a score of other classics such as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, there’s plenty more to see, at the sea.

Film Festival Oostende, 8-16 September, across Ostend