Review: ‘Born to Film’

Slim in breadth and length, but fat with hefty laughs, docu "Born to Film" pays affectionate homage to three amateur Belgian directors who refuse to let a lack of financing or talent keep them from taking up the megaphone. Helmer Frederic Sojcher fortunately has a surer grasp on technique as well as a good eye for detail, but never patronizes subjects.

Slim in breadth and length, but fat with hefty laughs, docu “Born to Film” pays affectionate homage to three amateur Belgian directors who refuse to let a lack of financing or talent keep them from taking up the megaphone. Helmer Frederic Sojcher (“Regarde-Moi”) fortunately has a surer grasp on technique as well as a good eye for detail, but never patronizes subjects, whose efforts make the likes of Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” look like “Citizen Kane.” Eminently likable pic reps a cheery crowd-pleaser for fests and upmarket channels, but may be too skimpy for theatrical distribution.

Pic focuses on the central trio of helmers, while excerpts from their movies speak eloquently for themselves. Docus love eccentrics and protags here are certainly a few reels short of a full feature.

Portly Max Naveaux, now retired, used to have a day job working as a projectionist at the Exploration du Monde theater. Since the 1960s he has made several war films with casts of tens, such as “Hell Patrol” (1960) and “Maquis Against Gestapo” (1961), mostly shot on sandy vacant lots in his suburban hometown. An excerpt from the former, for example, raises laughs by having a French voiceover that nevertheless refers to characters named “Joe” and “Chuck.”

He also has the unique distinction of being one of the only filmmakers to have permission from the Ministry of Defense to use live ammunition for a film. One of his featured players, a packaging sales rep named Jean Schuartz, who played an SS officer for one mini epic, nobly recalls dodging live bullets on set in the name of Naveaux’s art.

Retired schoolteacher Jacques Hardy, from Vise, is more of a genre dabbler, and has tried his hand at detective movies, pastiches of popular comic-strip “Asterix” set in ancient Gaul (catchily titled “Cesar Babarius in Southern Belgium”), and medieval horror films such as “A Priest in the Land of Witches.” Most of his pics star Christian Vranken, Klaus Kinski to Hardy’s Werner Herzog, a chubby church sexton who, like any superstar, gets final approval on his leading ladies, stipulating that they be pretty.

However, by far the most peculiar of the lot is Courcelles-based Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a former mason who insists on wearing a ski mask throughout the film to preserve his anonymity, and because he believes “the camera steals your soul.” He also carries a gun on set, and fires it to get the actors’ attention, a technique many an assistant director might envy.

Rousseau’s former teacher Patrick Moriau, who taught him how to read and write in adulthood, suggests Rousseau has “discovered” surrealism (an indigenous Belgian tradition, after all) independently without any formal education. Clips from his films, such as “The Alter of Repose” and “The Diabolic Doctor Fach” neatly illustrate this theory, with their jagged editing, screamed nonsensical dialogue and bizarre costumes.

Seemingly also Marxist judging by his reworked version of “The International,” a call to arms to independent filmmakers around the world that closes the film, Rousseau also endeared himself to crowd at projection caught by asking why shouldn’t people enjoy his films given he personally knows of “hundreds of thousands of people who are fed up with the American telemovies they always show on TV (in Belgium).”

Spontaneous applause also broke out when he observed imperiously that if he had Steven Spielberg’s budgets he could do better, but if Spielberg had to work with his budgets he simply couldn’t make a film at all.

Given resurgent interest in “outsider art” in other creative fields like visual arts and music these days, “Born to Film” is as timely as it is charming. While it captures its subjects in all their megalomaniacal glory, Sojcher’s treatment of them is deeply respectful, emphasizing their passion for their work and the camaraderie of collaboration.

Tech credits are unpretentious, with serviceable lensing that features the odd flash shot. Clearly, loving attention has been paid to the excerpts’ transfer for 35mm, showing them to best effect. Denise Vindevogel’s tight editing amps up the comedy gently. With material this engaging, the taut running time leaves one wanting more, but brevity was most likely dictated by pic’s TV-commission origin.

Born to Film

Noncompeting / Belgium-France

Production

A Hubert Toint presentation of a Saga Film (Belgium)/Flight Movie (France) production, in association with RTBF, WIP (Belgium)/Cine-Cinema (France). (International sales: Wallonie Image Production, Belgium.) Executive producer, Toint. Co-producers, Anne Hislaire, Christine Pireaux, Bruno Deloye. Co-executive producer, Etienne Chambolle. Directed by Frederic Sojcher.

Crew

Camera (color, 16-to-35mm), Michel Houssiau; editor, Denise Vindevogel; sound, Paul Heymans. Reviewed Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 15, 2004. Running time: 66 MIN.

With

Max Naveaux, Jacques Hardy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Bouli Lanners, Benoit Poelvoorde, Noel Godin, Christian Vranken, Jean Schuartz, Rene Cuba, Frans Badot, Bearice Janssen, Patrick Moriau. (French dialogue)
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