Binti brings some love to the world of child migration


A new Flemish movie about a girl from Congo eluding the authorities with her father is a highlight of the JEF festival of cinema for young people

Shining a light

Films about undocumented migrants tend to deal in the grim realities of their lives. With Binti, which premieres this weekend at the JEF youth film festival, Brussels director Frederike Migrom set out to do something different.

It’s a film for kids that is true to the situation of being a migrant, but which tells the story in a different way. “The films I’ve seen dealing with undocumented people have often linked them to criminality or are very dark,” says Migrom. “So an important goal was to decriminalise the subject, and to see undocumented status as an administrative issue rather than an identity.”

Her inspiration came from hearing about undocumented children from teachers in a local school where she was working on another project. “I’m not understating the hardship of being in this situation,” she goes on, “but I’ve met undocumented children who simply go to school and live fairly normal lives.”

Which brings us to Binti, an effervescent 12-year-old who is glued to her mobile phone and obsessed with gathering followers for her YouTube channel. She lives in an artists’ squat in Brussels with her father, Jovial.

It’s a colourful environment that has fed her creative personality, but it also leaves the pair exposed. When there is a police raid, they have to run.

Love struck

They end up in a wood. Separated from her father and caught in a rain shower, Binti takes shelter in a treehouse. There she finds Elias, a boy her own age who is mad for nature and science.

So, at least the treehouse has a socket where she can charge her phone. And this is where Binti’s father and Elias’ mother, Christine, find their children – and meet each other.

This is also where Binti moves into rom-com territory. Jovial is a widower, Christine is divorced. There is immediately some chemistry between them, but also some hesitation. Even so, Binti starts to think that a romance might be a way of bringing all of this persecution to an end.

I wanted it to be a story about love, family and friendship rather than about illegal immigrants

- Director Frederike Migrom

But it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy if there were not obstacles in the way. While Elias is initially happy to have a friend whose social media skills can boost his project to save the Okapi from extinction, he soon begins to suspect something else is going on. And next-door neighbour Floris has his own ideas about Christine.

Migrom was wary of applying rom-com conventions to a migrant story. “It was tricky to find a balance, because you also want to take the subject seriously,” she says. “But I wanted it to be playful, and to be a story about love, family and friendship rather than about illegal immigrants.”

She was helped by the energy of her cast. Binti is played by Bebel Tshiani Baloji, the daughter of the singer Baloji, who plays Jovial. Each was recommended to Migrom separately, but the advantages of casting them together soon became clear. “The story started to take shape around them. In the end, that turned out to be a gift.”

Congo connection

Both proved to be instinctively talented actors, their performances complemented by the experience of Joke Devynke, as Christine, and Mo Bakker as Elias, most recently seen in the real crime drama Niet schieten (Don’t Shoot). “Bebel is a rough diamond, while Mo is quite experienced, so it was really nice for them to do this together.”

In a film full of layers, one of the most interesting is that Binti and Jovial come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a former Belgian colony. One of Migrom’s aims was to celebrate the country, not to demonise it. “Too often the places where migrants come from are just seen as bad and dangerous, and Congo is much more than that, of course.”

A particularly nice touch is having Elias obsess about the Okapi, a species native to Congo that has been hunted to the brink of extinction. In a way, the animal stands-in for the country’s plundered rubber and mineral wealth.

“In the end, it’s a film for kids, so it would be too much to dig deep into colonial history,” Migrom explains, “but then I also didn’t want to ignore it. So this is a wink that hopefully the adult viewers will think about.”

Binti, for ages 8+, premieres in Antwerp as part of the JEF festival on 2 March. It opens wide in cinemas on 3 April

Bring the holiday to life with JEF

is one of the highlights of the JEF festival, a feast of cinematic treats for kids that takes place across Flanders during the Krokus school holiday. You can see the film in Antwerp and Bruges, with the Antwerp screening on 2 March followed by a Q&A with cast and crew, and a workshop on making video blogs, just like Binti.

Other special events include a medialab masterclass in Antwerp, which will let children get their hands on the latest audiovisual technology and make video clips and games. Meanwhile, Ghent will host an intensive masterclass on filming dance with a phone or tablet, and also a dance-along to the 1982 musical Annie.

The festival opens with the Norwegian film Los Bando (pictured above), in which best friends Axel and Grim set out on a road trip to win a band competition. Other eye-catching features include the stop-motion Captain Morten and the Spider Queen, acclaimed Zambia-set drama I Am Not a Witch, and What Happened in the Tent, a documentary about an exchange between circus schools in Molenbeek and Palestine.

23 February to 10 March, across Flanders