Interview: Bas Devos on Here
This article appeared in the February 9, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Here (Bas Devos, 2023)
The four features of Belgian filmmaker Bas Devos span a wide range. His 2014 debut Violet was a glacial, Haneke-esque drama about a teenager wrestling with an unspeakable tragedy, while Hellhole (2019) offered a mosaic-like portrait of Brussels haunted by the specter of terrorism. His third feature, Ghost Tropic (also 2019), was a departure from these trauma-driven tales, with its serene story of a widow who, after falling asleep on the metro, has to walk home through Brussels in the dark of the night. As tonally disparate as these works may be, they share the same interest in adrift characters questioning their relationship with the place they live in. These studies of city dwellers routinely swell into larger investigations of the city itself—its rhythms, textures, and soundscapes.
Here, Devos’s latest and most accomplished work to date, follows in the footsteps of Ghost Tropic. Another odyssey of sorts, the film centers on Stefan (Stefan Gota), a Romanian construction worker about to head home for a summer break, who spends his last hours in the Belgian capital delivering homemade soup to his friends and relatives. Stefan’s meanderings run parallel to a second narrative thread focusing on Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a Belgian-Chinese scientist who studies moss and helps out at her aunt’s restaurant. It is there that she first encounters Stefan, in one of a few serendipitous meet-cutes that turn Here into a low-key romance of sorts, powered by incidents (a summer storm, a busted car) that are almost the stuff of fairytales.
Stefan and Shuxiu are both struggling to negotiate their ties with the city; the film’s primary concern isn’t their budding rapport, but their rootlessness. Zooming in from vast construction sites to the infinitesimally small plants in the parks below, Here embraces a macro-micro approach that rejigs the way we see our surroundings and our place within them. Devos, who wrote the script, tells a story about immigrants that avoids big moments or declarative statements—Here is attuned to Stefan’s alienation but doesn’t fully articulate it, and it’s all the more moving and perceptive for that restraint.
Last fall, a few days before Here screened at the New York Film Festival, I caught up with Devos over video call to discuss the film’s genesis, folded space and fragmented narrative, and the inspiration he found in soup.
The title, Here, encapsulates a feeling the characters grapple with, a frustrated desire to plant their roots in places often far away from home.
Finding the right title is one of the things I find most stressful. Here, for the longest time, was just Film Bas Number Four. Only after the Berlinale said they needed to announce it did I come up with a title. At the time, I was thinking a lot about this idea of realizing your presence—what it means to be conscious of your presence and pay a different kind of attention to the world around you. The question then became, how can I come up with a title that points toward this without closing the film? Because that’s something that’s always concerned me—that a title might predetermine or dictate your viewing experience. I thought Here beautifully encapsulated Stefan and Shuxiu’s relationship with this very specific spot, without necessarily turning the film into his or her story.
How did the film begin? And how did you merge Stefan’s story with Shuxiu’s world of mosses?
As I prepared for Here, I was reading about labor migration in Europe, and I discovered that Brussels is home to a very large community of Romanians. It’s a city of minorities; different languages and people are in its DNA. But I wasn’t particularly interested in telling a migration story. At the same time, I was also thinking about our relation to the ground we live on, and how migration is a way of troubling that relation. But it was only after I read Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World that these ideas started clicking together. It’s a book about one of the most expensive mushrooms on earth, the matsutake, which only lives in human-disturbed forests, and cannot be cultivated. This network between humans and mushrooms led me to investigate mosses.
What was the initial spark that got you writing?
The soup! [laughs] I was feeling overwhelmed by this idea of the migration story; there was such a weight to it, and so much violence behind it. I didn’t know what to do with it. But something that recurred a lot in my conversations with the Romanians I met in Brussels was their unwavering belief that one day they’d all go back home, that they’d build a house in Romania and retire there. That’s something that sets them apart from other migrant communities in the city; for them, being in Brussels is only a temporary state, never mind the ties they’ve developed. A symbol of that for me was the fridge—emptying and turning off the fridge before you leave for a long trip. That triggered this idea of having Stefan use all his leftovers to make a soup. Once I had that, I knew I’d found my first scene.
All your films collapse the space between characters, while at the same time disintegrating the city into myriad fragments, so the portrait you offer of Brussels is essentially a big collage. Could you speak more about this tension between closeness and distance, and how it plays out in Here?
The more fragmented narratives of my first two features have somewhat disappeared in the last two. In both Ghost Tropic and Here, there’s more of a plot one can tap into; they are more welcoming, in a way, and it’s harder to get lost in them. But this tension between distance and closeness is still a key feature, because human beings for me remain very mysterious; I could never pretend to know how another person operates, or what their psychological makeup is. So the best way for me to speak about them is to focus on their surroundings. Where do they live? What do their homes look like? How do they carry themselves into the city? These external elements tell me a lot about their interior worlds. When I first walked into the apartment we ended up choosing as Stefan’s home in Here, I felt like I knew him a little better.
Could you tell me about your approach to sound and music? You rely on simple melodies that you repeat and tweak throughout the film.
There’s something very intriguing about sound—it’s so strangely unpredictable. I can think about it in advance, but no matter how clever those ideas might feel in pre-production, I always end up throwing them out. With Here, one of the things I really wanted to include was this idea of micro-sounds. There’s a whole world of sounds we do not hear—the fluids in a tree, how a tree sends fluids to its leaves. This makes an actual sound, which can be recorded.
So you wanted to play out the film’s macro-micro dynamic aurally as much as visually?
Well, that was the plan. I had it all figured out. I reached out to Chris Watson, a phenomenal sound recordist who’d already helped me out on Ghost Tropic and Hellhole. If anyone could help me extract those micro-sounds, it was him. He sent me a whole bunch of files that had very evocative titles, like “water lily opening,” or “underwater mud slides.” But the minute I clicked on them I knew it was never going to work. The sounds were nightmarish! They were all so deep and loud, and genuinely terrifying—the opposite of what I was after. That’s why the sound design is something I can only think about when I’m editing, not before.
As for music, I’ve only really used it in my last two films, because I’ve always been very afraid of its emotive quality—I hate the idea of music telling you, this is what you should feel right now. But with Ghost Tropic, I sensed there was a new question—the protagonist needed something to carry and help her, there had to be a benevolent presence walking alongside her. My biggest inspiration, when I spoke to the composer Brecht Ameel, was My Neighbor Totoro, which has a soundtrack that comforts you without ever telling you how you should feel. It was the same in Here, too, but I’m still figuring out how to speak about it, because what we were after is harder to define. Brecht and I talked a lot about textures; we were hoping to find something that would balance the physical world, the high-rises and the trees. That turned out to be very difficult. We struggled a lot to find the right instruments, until Brecht came up with this very simple tune that’s repeated and altered throughout.
Could you speak about directing actors? Do you expect them to follow the script verbatim, or do you leave enough room for improvisation?
There is no one answer because I think it changes from actor to actor, and scene to scene. In Here, the scene when Stefan and Liyo first meet at the Chinese restaurant is something of a hybrid. The beginning is all improvisation, because I wanted Stefan to speak freely and stumble if he had to. For the later section, I wanted something more scripted. Stefan’s not a fully trained actor, and Liyo had never been on a screen before—she’s a film editor, and has worked with Wang Bing, among others. But working with them was very pleasant: they were both so generous and unafraid. Still, there are times, especially when working with non-professional actors who are very afraid of the camera, when rehearsing turns into a therapy session, and I find myself reassuring them. Take Alina Constantin, the woman who plays Stefan’s sister, Anca: she’s a cleaning lady in real life, and to me she was the biggest discovery in the film. She’s amazing—and so at ease. But I don’t have a method, strictly speaking. I just speak a lot with my actors, and once they feel comfortable, beautiful things often come out. There may be times when you realize there are limits you can’t get past. That’s just natural; after all, the camera is a weapon, and to point it at someone and expect them to act naturally isn’t just paradoxical, it’s a violent act.
Leonardo Goi is a film critic and columnist at MUBI Notebook. He writes for Film Comment, Reverse Shot, The Film Stage, and Filmmaker, among others, and runs the Berlinale Talents Critics Lab and other film criticism workshops around Europe.