Born in 1971 and a graduate of the St Lukas Art School in Brussels, artist, photographer, and filmmaker Bavo Defurne established himself as an exciting new talent with a sequence of critically-acclaimed and prize-winning short films that explore gay love and loss, the body, and the power of nature and silence. He lives near the port city of Ostend in Belgium, on the coastline where North Sea Texas was made. Defurne discusses his first feature film in the following interview, completed by email on 21 January 2013.
Congratulations on this fascinating film! What led you to adapt André Sollie’s children’s novel Nooit gaat dit over?
Another unique feature of Sollie’s novel is that it is optimistic. ‘Old School’ gay coming-of-agers tend to be very negative and depressing. I guess Brokeback Mountain is a sort of climax of this pessimistic genre. One could call it a perfect sad-ended-gay-movie. Just like a lot of other movies – and my short ones as well – it is obsessed with loneliness and rejection and the impossibility of gay love. I felt that I had to do something different. Some rare exceptions have already tried to avoid negativism: Beautiful Thing is a very optimistic movie, for instance, but it is actually very, very sweet. Interesting, but I wanted a rather bittersweet movie.
How was the experience of making this feature film similar and/or different from your earlier work on short films?
The practicalities are more complex. The emotional possibilities are greater, which is nice. In my short work, I have used ‘icons’ or ‘archetypes’ and there was little time to explore these. Now there was time to explore the richness and complexities of human fabric.
In some ways, the film seems timeless. Was this decision deliberate?
Yes, I am interested in truthfulness. Realism does not excite me. Realism can sometimes even stand in the way of truth, because it can also cover some banalities or even lie.
The passage of time is quite seamless in the film: it spans a few years without significant changes to Pim, the other characters, and the setting. What led you to tell the story in this way?
Indeed, this is not a history; the ‘realistic’ passage of time is not what interested me. The journey is very much an emotional one that structures and paces the movie.
Tell us about the camerawork and the music, more specifically, silence and how they contribute to the film’s dreamlike quality. Was this choice inspired by the repeated descriptions of Pim as a dreamer?
Yes, I guess so. The film is seen through Pim’s eyes. Paced in his pace. Pim can’t express his feelings. He is silent but inside he is like a volcano ready to explode. You feel it coming; it is visible in the details.
Pim’s mother Yvette takes on a lodger to help with expenses, and Gino and Sabrina’s mother takes sugar sachets from restaurants to save money. Was the film’s focus on the economic situation motivated by the recession?
No, the novel was written by a man who was more from Pim’s generation. He tells me that the world was less luxurious then. When Udo Kier, a man of André Sollie’s generation, saw the movie, he told me the film was about him: no bath or shower, washing yourself with tap water, looking into the mirror singing Catherina Valente songs…
Tell us about the casting process.
It was hard, and a lot of energy was spent in casting the boys. We auditioned more than 200. A lot of boys and parents were afraid of the script. Finally, we found a great and courageous cast who were very much supported by their open-minded parents, people who believed in the movie.
The film is about the internal emotions of Pim and, by extension, the emotions of his close circle. I wanted to avoid external ‘contamination’ of this emotional world. So Pim does not have more than one friend and no one has a father, no priests, no teachers, soccer teammates, schoolmates… With them, the film would cease to be about a boy in love. It would be about a homophobic world. And this world does not deserve to be the focus of attention in this movie.
Pim is very sure of himself despite his age, perhaps even more so than Gino. Was this aspect of his character part of the novel?
Yes, and that is something quite unique. I liked that very much.
Do you see a correlation between age and maturity?
Yes, Sollie wrote this novel when he was over 50, so the 14-year-old Pim has got some of his maturity from the author. But Pim is not always so mature. He can be very childish too. With Jelle Florizoone [the actor who plays Pim], I had a code: Pim goes from prince to prince to king. By the end of the movie, he is the king and Gino could be seen as weaker, some would feel he is a bit of a loser.
Owing to the film’s focus on the rather mature Pim, it differs from many coming-of-age films that explore sexuality. Were your decisions made in response to the kinds of movies currently available?
Yes, I did not want to remake anything: not even my own short films.
The gay movement has tried to prove that gay men can be as masculine as straight. While some gay men are even more masculine than some of their straight brothers, the discussion is wrong. Masculinity is neither good nor bad. Just like being effeminate isn’t. Pim could be called effeminate: dressing up as a girl, dreaming, not going out, not riding a motorcycle… he can act very queenly and some would call him a sissy. But I depict this not as a defect or a weakness. Even Pim’s mother doesn’t judge: she’s not angry when little Pim cross-dresses. Pim is Pim and he has the right to be proud of who he is, a very unique and special boy. He does not conform to masculinity, his difference is valuable, and it is not a defect.
Pim is a gifted illustrator. Was this touch autobiographical?
Yes. André Sollie is an illustrator of children’s books.
I try not to judge my characters. I try to look through their eyes and stand in their shoes. People do what they think is good, or at least they try to do what they feel is needed. When we casted Eva for the role of Yvette, this was our deal: Yvette is not a bad mother. She does what she feels is right. Even if we might find it eccentric, and even if the results could be catastrophic, I don’t think it was her intention to harm.
Are you optimistic about the film’s ending?
I did not want to make it sugary sweet, but wanted, surely, to avoid the depressing clichés like suicide or plain loneliness or rejection. The ending could be called half-open. It is not overtly clear what will happen, but I made sure to exclude some boo-boos from the possible interpretations. Various spectators have different interpretations, but no one finds this ending depressing.
How do you see Sabrina fitting in?
She is the mirror image of Pim, a teenager in love with someone with a different sexual orientation. She goes through a similar discovery, jealousy, and acceptance process.
What are you working on now?
Souvenir, a movie about a female singer who almost won the Eurovision Song contest but is now forgotten and works in a meat factory. When she falls in love with a boxer less than half her age, they attempt a comeback.
Thanks so much for your time and for this carefully-made film!
Tom Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow, and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London, where he researches Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of Henry James, George Gissing and Oscar Wilde.
Read Mark James’ review of North Sea Texas here.