Filmmaker Michael Abay: “Brussels was an important source of inspiration”
It’s terrace time again. This week, we sat outside Le Dillens café in Saint-Gilles to chat with filmmaker Michael Abay. He recently attended the US premiere of his short film Klette and is now looking forward to a home game at the Brussels Short Film Festival.
Michael Abay has just completed a long retirement from the western United States, so the filmmaker is jet-lagged on the terrace of the Dillens. But his stay in the United States also gave him energy. His short film klette received its US premiere at the Shortsfest film festival in Aspen, Colorado. “It was a great experience,” he says. “We received the award for best student film and the American public reacted very loudly and exuberantly during the screening, which I did not expect at all. I was worried about the inconvenience of the language barrier, as the film is spoken in Dutch and French. But apparently it seemed very recognizable to them.
At the Brussels Short Film Festival, the screenings will in any case be a celebration of recognition for the spectators. “The city was an important source of inspiration, so I was really born and raised in Brussels.” In the film, we follow Morgane, 26, from Brussels, played by rising star Jennifer Heylen, on an important day in her life. A key scene takes place in the Parc Tour & Taxis, where Morgane begins to feel like a so-called “klette” during a picnic with friends.
For all ignorant Brussels residents, what exactly is a klette?
Michael Abay: It is the feminine form of ‘klet’, Brussels snake for someone who doesn’t know how to handle things, a real loser. A good-for-nothingas we say in French.
Do you have anything to do with the ‘KLET’ stickers that are all over town?
a bay: Not at all, but I myself smuggled three stickers with “KLETTE” into the movie. For those who want to: try to spot them all. (Laughs) The stickers played a role in the idea of the film. At one point I saw them everywhere, it seemed like a subliminal message to me.
Did you feel challenged then?
A BAY: In a way yes, klette is based on doubts I had myself. Before starting management studies at RITCS, I first studied applied economics at KU Leuven for four years. While I stayed in school and still lived with my mother, many friends were building a completely different life, with a permanent job, etc. Then the feeling grows that you are falling behind, I wondered if I had made the right choice, if I hadn’t started to work better.
Is making films a somewhat outdated vocation?
a bay: No, already in the last two years in high school I was looking for which film school I could best go to. But my mother kindly advised me to study first which offered more job security. This economics study also interested me, but the plan was always to study cinema afterwards.
You graduated from RITSC last year, with klette as your thesis, for which you quickly won the important VAF Wildcard Fiction prize at the Kortfilmfestival Leuven.
a bay: Which completely surprised me, still actually. (laughs) As a result, my film was not only screened all over Flanders as part of the Wildcards on Tour initiative, but I also received a budget to make another film. The new short film, which is still in its infancy, should be ready within a good year. You are therefore pushed to quickly return to work, which for me is a very positive motivation. Otherwise, it would have taken a lot longer before I started something new.
Back to the subject of the film. Isn’t the power of the story that most of us feel like “shit” or “shit” at one point or another?
a bay: I put a lot of myself into the film, but the funny thing is that several of my friends suspect me of having based the main character on them. I think it’s a universal theme, not always knowing where you want to go. Also the fact that we compare our own journey too much with that of others. While other people’s lives aren’t as rosy as it sometimes seems.
Jennifer Heylen plays the roof tiles as Morgane and also received the Jury Prize for Best Performance by an Actor in Leuven. How did you end up with her?
a bay: I had her in mind when I was writing the screenplay, because I had seen in her other work how well she manages to balance drama and comedy perfectly. It was necessary for the role of Morgane, someone who humorously creates a smokescreen to hide that she is feeling bad. Jennifer was also present in Aspen and received another award, a special mention for her performance as an actress.
Beautiful roles also for Brussels actresses Eva Kamanda and Anne-Laure Vandeputte, friends of Morgane.
a bay: I met Eva on another film set and she also lives near my home, in Jette. Anne-Laure plays the role of Morgane’s best friend because she is also a close friend of Jennifer in real life. For the realism of the film, I wanted their bond to be very natural.
The soundtrack also caught my eye. Who is the creator of the music, Uwase?
a bay: Uwase Rutayisire, 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Brussels. Someone who comes strong. I was incredibly happy when I heard his music for the film, it fit perfectly.
Former VAF Wildcard winners, like Gilles Coulier and the duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, has meanwhile taken a special course. Does that give you hope?
a bay: These are of course the successes. I’m realistic enough to realize that it’s a job with a lot of uncertainty. I’ll see how it goes. To link with klette it is important not to compare yourself too much to others. It just creates unnecessary pressure.
Are there any directors you particularly admire?
a bay: I find it difficult, I don’t have directors who are really the reference to follow for me. I’m also still looking for a director, I prefer not to confine myself to a certain genre or style. I especially like character-driven movies. For klette I was inspired by the Dardenne brothers, in particular Rosette. Black Ponds by Timeau De Keyser and Pieter Dumoulin, which also follows a character traveling through Brussels, also inspired me a lot. In the absurd comedy thick neck I also found the Brussels feeling very strong.
Are you coming to the United States for the first time, but dreaming of a longer adventure on the other side of the Atlantic?
a bay: It’s not a dream at the moment. I would like to try it, but I also look at it with mixed feelings. You also hear quite a few horror stories about directors having to give up a lot of creative freedom when shooting a movie in the United States. Anyway, let me do my thing here first and grow slowly. Here I can maintain sufficient freedom and control over the creative process. A debacle like with the superhero film by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (the Warner cinema label canceled its film “Batgirl”, editor’s note) I never see that either.
Have you ever seen yourself making a superhero movie?
a bay: I don’t think, I’m sick of them, they all look so alike these days. (thinks) Although, maybe an alternative superhero movie, seen from an unusual perspective. About a retired superhero or one dealing with dementia, that could be something.
Klette can be seen during Brussels Short Film Festival which runs from April 26 to May 6.
“Bacon trailblazer. Certified coffee maven. Zombie lover. Tv specialist. Freelance communicator.”