This article got first published in the March edition of the Gazette van Detroit, an American newspaper for Belgians and their descendants in the US.
By Peter Vanham
NEW YORK – Next to a water pump, on a farm surrounded by stalls and fields, my grandfather was raised and spent most of his life. Going to visit him as a child always felt a bit like making a trip back in time. The way to the province of Limburg in Belgium is marked by tiny villages, open fields with cows or corn and small unlighted tractor roads, and even at my grandfather’s house everything resembles the late 19th century.
For me, those memories now seem like a distant future. I live in New York and am pursuing an international career in journalism. What would my late grandfather have thought of that? His sister spent her entire life in a monastery, and he barely ever left the province – and he didn’t visit us all that often either, although we lived only an hour away by car, in the nearby province of Antwerp.
One can imagine my surprise when I went to see the premiere of “Bull Head”, an Oscar nominated movie, and found out it was set in the very city where my grandfather’s sister spent her life devoting god. Set on a farm, with as topic the meat industry in Belgium, some of the actors are locals who easily could have run into my grandfather some twenty years ago. But instead of appealing the peasant population in Belgium, the film, along with its director Michael R. Roskam and his lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts is touring the world, winning prizes on nearly every festival they attend.
How did a first time director, who worked with a budget of only a few million dollars, and who comes from a country that never produced any Oscar winning foreign language film, produce an Academy Award nominated film about farm life in Belgium?
With a lot of imagination, you could say “Bullhead” is a modern version of a cowboy western, set in rural Belgium. With the central character literally a cowboy turned into a villain, the movie is about a farmer gang trading steroids to grow oversized cows. The sheriff is present too, embodied by a pair of Mickey and Mallory Knox lookalike cops, pictured most often while spending their time with a gay informant in cheap motels airing porn shows in the outskirts of Belgium.
It’s no surprise, then, that the film’s first US success came in Texas. On the Fantastic Fest in Austin, the film won the Next Wave Award for the best up and coming director in the festival. Michael Roskam, the director of Bull Head, said that their Austin success paved their way to the Oscars. “That we are [in New York] now, on our way to the Oscar show in Los Angeles, is because of the enthusiastic reactions in Austin. It really all started there,” he told me on the film’s Oscar promo tour in New York early February. It’s also a dream come true for Tim League, who’s Austin distribution firm Drafthouse gave the film a chance and is now awarded with an Oscar nomination, merely 2 years after the firm’s operations started.
Yet most of the credit has to go to the modest director himself. Unlike the meat farmers in his movie, Mr. Roskam allowed his first long feature film to mature in a natural way, as opposed to rushing it to the market. But like his characters, he is a craftsman devoted to his work. Since he graduated from the Amsterdam film academy in 2005, he spent 7 years developing the script and cast of the movie, refining central theme on every turn of the season, and laboring until every line of the script was right. In the end, it’s remarkable how the traits of a Limburg farmer – patience, humbleness, hard work – coincide with his own.
The same is true for the lead actor for the movie, the handsome and muscled Matthias Schoenaerts. Since he starred four years ago in Eric Van Looy’s “Loft”, Belgium’s best watched movie ever, the actor’s fame rose to galactic proportions in his home country, and attracted interest from movie makers in France and the U.S.
Just how popular the Belgian Adonis is with the public, became clear at the films’s New York screening. “Can I touch you?” a middle aged woman asked the actor right before my interview with him, perhaps assuming that would grant her a long and prosperous future. And right after we finished, college girls were lining up for a photo with Mr. Schoenaerts, giggling like 16-year olds when they got their snapshot with the blond actor.
“It might sound a bit buddhistic,” he told me in between the craze, “but I don’t think you should rush opportunities in life. If you have the potential, your chance to shine will eventually come.” For that reason the actor choose to accept the lead role in Roskam’s film debut rather than to try his chance in Hollywood. As a result, he spent 2 years of his life commuting between Flanders Fields and the gym room. For his role as the hormone addicted jack Jacky, he had to gain several tens of pounds of muscles, eventually looking like a younger version of Arnold Schwarzenegger – something he alluded to in the film’s New York Q&A session, hilariously imitating the Austrian accent of the former Terminator star, much to the delight of the public present on the screening.
The bet of patience and faith paid off for both Mr. Schoenaerts and Mr. Roskam. After jointly making Bull Head, Mr. Roskam was named one of Vogue’s 2012’s “director to watch”, while Mr. Schoenaerts got another chance to pursue a Hollywood career. He went on to play in the Hollywood remake of “Loft”, alongside James Marsden and Wentworth “Prison Break” Miller. Later in 2011 he also starred in “Rust and Bone”, a French movie involving two Cannes Palme D’Or winners, star actress Marion Cotillard and director Jacques Gaudiard.
For all the glamour and glitter involving the movie’s lead actor, and the meticulous work of its director Mr. Roskam, it was shocking to see how the Belgian Oscar hopeful “Bull head” got one of the most dispassionate applauses ever heard for an Academy Award nominated movie premiere.
The reason for that lies in the harshness of the movie which leaves no viewer untouched, and requires the public take a deep breath after its tragic ending. I myself, who was fortunate enough to see the movie in the company of a lovely Belgian friend, got dizzy, sweaty and sick during the movie’s pivotal scene – not quite the way to impress a woman, I can assure you. In the scene that made me sick, we see a then 8 year-old Jacky undergo the most traumatizing experience a boy close to puberty can have. (I’ll leave it to the imagination of the reader what that is.)
A senior Wall Street banker that I spoke later about the movie said the ending moved both him and his wife into tears, because it reminded them about the fragility of their own child. He said the 8 year old who played Jacky in the movie looked like an exact copy of their own son.
“It’s a hard movie indeed,” a spokeswoman of Drafthouse said during the reception afterwards. “But it’s exactly because the central theme is so hard and the scenes so realistic, that the movie is so good.” That’s also the opinion of Mr. Roskam, who says that movie, more than about Belgian farmers, is about human characteristics and relations that have made great stories since the theatrical dramas in Ancient Greece. “Remorse, Revenge, Bonding, Betrayal,… that is what the movie is really about,” he said.
Unfortunately, the fairy tale of Bull Head stopped at the Oscars; they didn’t win the Best Foreign Language Acadamy Award. But one thing is for sure: after having seen this movie, I will never look at the old fashioned Limburg farmers in the same way again.
Peter Vanham is a Belgian economist and journalist. He lives in New York, and is currently studying at Columbia Journalism School.
“Bull Head”, seen at the Museum of the Moving Image, February 7, 2012.