DRIES TALKS – Lukas Dhont
What does freedom mean to you?
For me, freedom intuitively involves giving yourself and others full room to exist, with the possibility of authentic expression. How that happens is different for everyone. As an adolescent and young adult there was a lot I couldn’t express, so I didn’t really feel free to be myself, nor to interact authentically with the people around me. I only learned to establish that later, even though it was clear to me at a very young age that creativity would be my channel of expression. The cinema was the stage where my struggle for freedom took place, and I think that now, partly thanks to and through my films, I can speak fully about the things that happen inside and outside of me and move me.
On the face of it, your films are about identity and gender. Or is that too simplistic?
Gender is perhaps the most striking theme. ‘Girl’ and ‘Close’ form a diptych, with Girl illustrating femininity and ‘Close’ being about masculinity, about the sensuality we may or may not allow into the male universe. Apart from this, the film examines the stereotypical image we have of masculinity. ‘Close’ is also a film about the transition period between child and adolescent, the phase when you first realise that everything you do has consequences, that your actions resonate in the world, and not just in a good sense. It is around this time that feelings of guilt awaken. You can’t always talk about that, even as an adult. ‘Close’ also talks about mourning and how when someone is no longer around, we try to stay close to that person.
However, ‘Close’ is, above all, a film about friendship, its strength and beauty, as well as the tenderness and vulnerability that come with it. I think we’ve all experienced that there comes a point when a friend changes direction, and the friendship is no longer the same. That comes with a bit of heartache. We often see it expressed through the prism of a romantic relationship, because as a society we are strongly oriented towards that. I myself see more and more the possibility of looking at friendship as a way of life, because it has become clear to me that I have not always attached the same importance to my friendships; I have not always given them the intimacy and respect that I would nevertheless have wished for.
Where do you get your ideas for your films?
My inspiration always comes through someone else’s story that I can relate to myself. For ‘Close’, it was an American study about friendship among boys between 13 and 18. That information resonates with a deep experience of myself, which I can use and connect to a more universal and larger fact that connects me to the world. There is also nothing more inspiring than sitting on an underground or tram, looking around and observing interpersonal reactions.
In addition, art is a permanent source of inspiration. Painting is an inexhaustible breeding ground for my creativity. The works of Francis Bacon, Henri Scott-Tuke and David Hockney, as well as the great Flemish masters, touch me deeply. I create moving images, so a still image stirs my imagination about what would happen should the image be in motion. And, of course, there is music; I always write with music and use it as an art form to be in connection with my emotions. I also love to read. In short, I try to scavenge as much as possible, then create a patchwork of things that fascinate me and that I like.
When do you know you have an idea worthy of a film?
I think in the first phase, I try to talk to as many people as possible about an idea and see how they react. I certainly discuss things with my cinematographer Angelo Thijssens with whom I write. In other words, I’m trying to find as many audiences as possible before the film hits theatres. I also follow my gut feeling; that’s why I made a film about connection after a time when we were all strongly isolated from each other.
Do you think your work can also lead to more empathy at a time when we are all heavily focused on how different we are or what specific segment of society we belong to?
It is important that I can see cinema as a bridge, as a way of showing things that make us similar or that we do connect. If you can imagine what someone else is going through and consequently how you would think or what you would do if you experienced something similar, empathy is created. In that sense, cinema can be a very powerful tool and I very much believe in that power. Even when I was young, cinema represented the place where I saw and found myself. I remember when we went to Persepolis and I could totally put myself in that world and universe. That really moved me.
How important is appearance to you?
I’m always preoccupied with the idea of beauty and how to make things more beautiful. I look for beauty in light, colour, the visual effect, in the people I work with. In fact, I grew up with it; my mother taught Fashion at the Academy and she was constantly busy transforming materials into costumes or jewellery to make the wearer feel more beautiful. In that sense, looks have always been important to me.
In my films, by the way, I also show how long beauty has been viewed from a certain, very stereotypical angle, from a classical ideal that I want to dismantle. Beauty may be found elsewhere than society has told us. Finally, I want to emphasise that I think beauty is strongly linked to self-confidence, feeling good in your skin, your body. Personally, I had to go a long way to feel more comfortable with who I am, also physically. Today, I dare to feel more empowered, and I think I also project this more. After all, your inside and outside are always strongly connected.
Final question. Do you already have plans for your next film?
Definitely, but because we are in full swing with the Oscar campaign, it is more difficult to think about it at the moment. That doesn’t matter however, because it’s great to be able to do this first!