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'Black' Brings the Gangs of Brussels to the Big Screen

'Black' centers on gang violence and features an almost exclusively black and Moroccan cast.

by Chris Bilton
14 September 2015, 4:00am

Still courtesy TIFF

Brussels is often thought of as a quintessential capital city: organized, unassuming, stately, and sleepy as all hell. But that's not the Brussels of 27-year-old Belgian-based Moroccan filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah's new movie Black, which is set in the inner city neighborhoods and centers on gang violence and alienation among poor black and Moroccan communities. The film is essentially a Romeo and Juliet love story, but shot with the streetwise and unflinching sensibilities of Larry Clark's Kids or Hector Babanco's Pixote. It uses blazing visuals to convey the seemingly limitless possibility of violence in the inner city.

As a second full-length feature for the directorial team (their debut was 2014's Image), the film bears some of the cliches of young filmmakers grappling with big topics: the violence is occasionally over-stylized and parts of the plot feel a bit rushed, and while most of the characters on both side of the racial divide are complex and well drawn, the black gangsters are particularly vicious.

But their commitment to the authenticity of the neighborhoods and the story set therein—the film is based on Dirk Bracke's youth-oriented novel of the same name, which is apparently a controversial favorite in Belgium—comes through in the characters and locations. (The entire film was cast off the streets, and shot in the city's marginalized neighborhoods.) Indeed, even though Black begins with its focus on the petty, fairly unlikeable Moroccan gang and its proverbial Romeo, Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi), the real story becomes the tragic journey of Juliet stand-in Mavella's (Martha Canga Antonio) relationship with the terrifyingly powerful, and ultra-violent, Black Bronx gang—a crew with a penchant for gang rape and neighborhood intimidation.

The all-around bleakness of the film aside, the filmmakers came across as a pair of enthusiastic and considerate dudes when VICE met up with them for their first ever North American interview.

VICE: How did you two get into filmmaking?
Bilall Fallah: On the first day of school, which was all only, like, artistic white people, he was the only Moroccan. So I asked him, "Are you Moroccan? And he said, "Yeah." So we formed a gang together, and made movies together. It came naturally: Every time I made a movie, he was on my set, and every time he made a movie, I was on set. It was like our minds were connected, sharing the same vision.

And these were student films?
Adil El Arbi: Yeah, in film school. We didn't even pass first year because everybody thought our films sucked.

Fallah: We both flunked. And they were fucking racist.

El Arbi: But the kind of movies we made were actually quite commercial. We were inspired by movies by [Martin] Scorsese and Spike Lee and whole bunch of directors. While the movies [the instructors] wanted to see were very artsy movies that you would see at festivals. It was a few years before they had some kind of respect for us.

It's kind of the opposite here where people who try to make art films are told they should be more commercial. So, you did one other full length, and anything else?
El Arbi: Every year in film school you have to make a short movie, and every short movie we made was in the same universe that we use in our long features. So the last short movie we made won some prizes, and one of those was a budget for a new short movie. But with that we said, "Fuck short movies; let's make a long feature." It was our first movie, Image, which was about a Moroccan gangster and a journalist in a neighborhood in Brussels. And then the second movie is Black. And we hope we can make a shitload of other movies.

So obviously you guys are familiar with the scene you're portraying in the film. Can you give us a little background on that side of Brussels. I mean, I was there like 10 years ago, and saw a very different side of the city.
El Arbi: We read this book [Black] in school, as you read a lot of stuff that's aimed at teenagers. I wanted to read it because it was about black gangs in Brussels. There are about 35 gangs in the city that are active, more or less, and we know this kind of world, because we know lots of black people and Moroccan people in this immigrant community. It's our world. And we felt connected to the characters.

Fallah: There's also a universal thing about Romeo and Juliet, but we still wanted to keep it raw.

El Arbi: It was interesting when you read the book, you understand why the gangsters go into it, and get inside their heads.

There's the socio-economic aspect, and the racism between the two gangs in the film, but you don't really see the view outside of that in the movie. What's the immigrant experience like?
El Arbi: In Brussels, when you're Moroccan or you're black, you have a hard time finding a normal job. Even though Brussels is very rich, the population of Brussels is very poor. You have one million people coming in there to work every day, but the people who live there are very very poor. There's Moroccans, and blacks, and people from Eastern Europe, and for anyone with a foreign sounding name, they have a problem finding a job. So they don't belong to the society. And a lot of those young people, they see their big brothers or older friends who don't get a job, and so they are thinking, why should I try? So they get into some criminal activity, in a group where they feel like, I am accepted and I have an identity—I am thought of as Black Bronx, that's who I am. And that's clear because I'm not part of society. A lot of those people just want to belong somewhere, and they feel like there's no real future for them. They feel always like an immigrant, even if they are born here or their parents are born here.

And in the film, there's even alienation within those groups. Once the main characters fall in love and they try to escape the violence, they're alienated from those groups that they belong to. Well, how did you choose to focus on this one specific story?
El Arbi: Most of the criminal activity that happened around 2008-2009, right when that book [Black] came out, was in the African community. It was the African gangs fighting for the same turf. But we wanted to explore some of the smaller gangs that act criminal or aren't as dangerous as the ones in the African neighborhoods. They act really different. Sometimes you have wars between neighborhoods—it's not always wars between African gangs and Moroccan gangs. It'll be two Moroccan gangs against each other, one from the north of Brussels against one from the south of Brussels. But we thought it would be interesting to show those two kinds of gangs, because the main characters are very similar [even though they're from different gangs]. And that's the beauty of the story.

By focusing on these two characters and their worlds, there's not a lot of the rest of Brussels. There are not a lot of white people in the film.
El Arbi: Just the cops. The racist cops.

What was the thinking behind setting it up that way?
El Arbi: What you see in the movie is the real neighborhoods in Brussels, and the world that they live in. So you can see it's really difficult to have a good future in that kind of environment. So it happens in the underground in the metro subway station, and in their neighborhoods.

Fallah: And there isn't a lot of contact with white Flemish people, it's really an entirely different world.

El Arbi: So for the movie, we had to stay there. And that's why the movie is much more about the relationship between Marwan and Mavella, and even more than about gangs—like, there are 35 different gangs, but you don't see all of them. It's just centered around those two characters,

And in so doing, I understand that the film is one of the first Flemish films to feature this racial makeup.
Fallah: All the Flemish films are full of white people. You never have Moroccans or black people.

El Arbi: If you come from another country and watch Flemish television, you think Belgium is all white. And all the famous people in Belgium are white. Even though Brussels and Antwerp and Ghent are multicultural. So that's one of the things that's going to be a shock and controversial in Flanders—it's something new. When you see a Moroccan person in a Flemish movie, they're usually a drug dealer or a terrorist. So we chose to make a movie full of blacks and Moroccans, and also show the good and bad side of both groups.

And is this how you ended up using non-professional actors?
Fallah: Since all the television shows are full of white actors, we weren't going to find them there. So we did street casting to find people who matched the characters. We had 400 auditions and saw them all, and did like four months to find those guys. We chose 16 of them, who we knew were talented, like diamonds. And then we like professionalized them by doing two months of rehearsing.

El Arbi: We worked with them to do a lot of improvisation. Obviously there's a screenplay, but we wanted to give them a lot of freedom because we wanted to capture that documentary style of acting. And we wanted to have that chemistry between the actors. They all knew a lot about gangs, even though they never said they were part of any gangs—they were always talking about, "Yeah, a friend of mine, he did this and this and this." And then one of the actors got arrested while we were shooting.

What's the story there?
El Arbi: We were just shooting, and then he got arrested, and then a few hours later he was free. And he never really told us what it was about. But he also talked about his father, who was known in the neighborhood with the gangs, so we assumed it was something like that.

Fallah: But most of the actors really played a role. But they know the world and they know the language of the street. And that was really important to us, to be as authentic as possible and to have it almost as documentary acting. And I think we did that.

What was that like for them to have this opportunity to make a movie.
El Arbi: When we did the casting, most of them didn't believe we were really film directors. We had to show them our first movie to prove that we weren't bullshitters. Because we're on the street asking girls who are like 16-years-old: "Hey, do you want to play in a movie?" [Laughs].

Fallah: But after a while we had an office in downtown Brussels, and a lot of people walking by. And one guy who played the most important role of the gang leader, he was on his way to work and he passed by. We noticed he had a face like the character, so we asked him if he wanted to come in for casting.

El Arbi: He was the only one I was scared of, because everyone [auditioning for that role] was yelling, and he was really calm. Everybody thought maybe he'd killed somebody. But the two main characters, Marwan and Mavella—she'd read the book and was a fan of the book and found her own way to the casting. And as soon as she read [for the part] it was like a bomb of emotions and we knew it was going to be her.

What about the street lingo and the dialects—do you think any of that gets lost in the subtitles?
Fallah: We showed the movie through the French speaking channel and they didn't have any problem understanding it. Though, even for us there were little words and little jokes that we didn't understand.

El Arbi: We showed it to a famous Belgian artist, Stromae, and he was there with his black family and friends, and they were laughing their asses off. They understood all those sentences—so the actors were really thinking about their lines. But it's the images that really tell the story.

What was it like shooting the film?
Both: It was war.

El Arbi: We told the actors that if we want to make this movie it's like going into war. One-hundred percent, you have to give yourself, heart, and mind. And in some of those neighborhoods, there was some violence, like threatening to stab one of the white people on the crew.

Fallah: I got a bottle smashed on my head.

El Arbi: But we reached out to them. We went to the neighborhoods months before we went to shoot, to get the trust of the people there. We wanted to be authentic in the actors and in the locations. We weren't going to shoot in the part of Brussels where nothing happens, and we wanted to be on the streets that are described in the book.

Fallah: We wouldn't tell people it was a film about gangsters, we'd tell them it was a love story.

One last question... how do you think this is going to be received in Belgium and in Europe?
El Arbi: Very interesting. The book was really hard.

The book already had a reputation?
El Arbi: Yeah, it was really popular. So when we shot the movie, we would shoot the hardest version possible and then tone it down a little. But the first version that we showed the producer and the distributors, they were like, keep it that way: keep it hard, keep it rough, you don't need to tone it down. So it's pretty much the version we have now. I think the good thing is that it will not go unnoticed. And that is a good thing for young directors.

Black plays at Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 11, 9 PM; Sunday, September 13, 10 PM; and Saturday, September 19, 3 PM.

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