Flemish films benefit from foreign dialects

Directors reach for broader audience

The Flemish director Stijn Coninx never doubted that “Soeur sourire,” his biopic of Belgium’s chart-topping singing nun Jeanine Deckers, could be anything other than a French-speaking film.

“It had to be done in French because that was who Deckers was,” Coninx tells Variety. “She lived on the French-speaking side of Belgium, so it would have been ridiculous to make a Flemish-language film set in a Flemish convent.”

Coninx hopes that “Soeur Sourire,” which stars Belgian actress Cecile de France, will set the record straight after the liberties taken by glossy 1966 Hollywood biopic “The Singing Nun,” starring Debbie Reynolds. Coninx’s grittier pic focuses on Deckers’ conflicted sexuality and her “search for love,” which led her away from the Catholic Church.

Pierre Drouot, managing director of the Flemish Audiovisual Fund (VAF), says the fact that Coninx, one of Flanders’ most successful directors and rare Academy Award nominees (for his feature “Daens” in 1993), was chosen to direct the $10.3 million “Soeur sourire” shows just how far Flemish filmmakers have come.

“I think Stijn was asked (by French producer Eric Heumann) to direct this film because he has directed two or three of the most successful Belgian films of all time,” Drouot says. “The fact that he was chosen to make the film instead of a French-speaking director is an important asset for us.”

Other Flemish filmmakers, including Fien Troch and co-helmers Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, are also making names for themselves directing non-Flemish-language films with international crossover appeal. Troch chose to make her Brussels-set sophomore pic “Unspoken,” about a child who goes missing, in French because she wanted to work with French actors Emmanuelle Devos and Bruno Todeschini.

“I’m Flemish, my film is in French, and I chose an English title. It couldn’t get more complicated that that,” jokes Troch, who fine-tuned her film’s screenplay, originally written in Dutch, after being selected for the Cannes-subsidized Cinefondation workshop in Paris. “Secretly, I hoped that having

Emmanuelle Devos and Bruno Todeschini in my film would help get it distributed in France,” she adds. “I’m still keeping my fingers crossed.”

Flemish-born Brosens and American-born Woodworth won the Luigi de Laurentiis Award at Venice in 2006 for their Mongolian-language feature “Khadak,” about a young nomad whose livestock falls victim to a mysterious plague on the steppes of Mongolia. They recently completed work on a new film, “Altiplano,” which is set in the Andes.

“Altiplano” is “made with a Peruvian audience in mind,” says Woodworth, who similarly conceived “Khadak” for Mongolian auds. “But our ambition is to lift a film above its physical context and allow it to resonate on a universal level.”

In some ways the exotic and far-flung nature of Brosens and Woodworth’s films have set them apart from the rest of the Belgian film industry. “We have come across articles summing up recent Belgian cinema which exclude ‘Khadak,'” says Woodworth. “It could be due in part to the fact that it was a co-production with Germany and Holland and was shot in Mongolia.”

For its part, the VAF Flanders Audiovisual Fund (which helped finance “Khadak”) would welcome Brosens and Woodworth with open arms if they were to make their next film in Flanders rather than seek subjects and locations abroad.

“We are a cultural fund, and it’s important for us that our own culture is promoted in the films that we help finance,” Drouot says. “If everyone was going to ask us to shoot in another language than Flemish, then we would have a problem.”