Campfire: Films By Bavo Defurne Review
Despite finding success on the festival circuit, gay filmmaker Bavo Defurne remains relatively unknown. To a degree, this is understandable as the director has yet to make the move into feature film production, yet it may also be due to his status as a Belgian filmmaker. After all, that country has been adept at producing one-of-a-kind films (Man Bites Dog for example or The Sexual Life of Belgians 1950-1978) and one-of-a-kind directors (Harry Kumel, say, or the Dardenne Brothers) rather than providing a conspicuous national cinema.
Whichever way you look at it, Defurne is a director in need of a bigger audience; his films possess a great power and are certainly deserving of a place alongside the works mentioned above. As such, the BFI’s release of Campfire, a collection of four short films, is to be welcomed. Improving on their previous VHS release (which consisted of only three films), this DVD’s appearance may finally garner Defurne a little more of the recognition he deserves.
Particularly Now, In Spring
Lasting only eight minutes, Particularly Now In Spring has a remarkable strength despite its brevity. The concept is simple; a teenage boy delivers a first person narration of his thoughts over footage of himself and his friends as they exercise in the swimming pool and on the running field. Whilst this may appear somewhat limited, Defurne makes wonderful use of juxtaposing the two.
Taken without its visual accompaniment, the voiceover could be interpreted merely as that of a naively optimistic young man. He speaks of wanting to become an actor like his idol, Johnny Weismuller, and for his group of friends to stay together, while occasionally making utterances along the lines of “I think anything is possible”. Yet the visual dimension removes this commentary from being something akin to a BBC Video Diary and instead infuses it with heartbreaking desire.
The primary visual allusion is to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, her document of the 1936 Munich Olympics. As well as courting controversy with this title and, more famously, Triumph Of The Will, these two films have place the director at the forefront of those dealing with the aestheticism of the human body. In the case of Defurne’s film, the bodies on display are strictly those of the young male and so the longing in the narrative takes on a distinctly homoerotic flavour. Moreover, the lines such as “we don’t talk about it” become particularly important, making the film just that little more affecting. Indeed, the naivety and the optimism still remain. In fact, it could even be deduced that the references to becoming an ‘actor’ are merely euphemistic.
Of course, the effect would be denigrated somewhat if the photography was under-par. Thankfully, not only are the visual references spot-on but the black and white photography (courtesy of Vincent Bal) looks wonderful. It would appear that Particularly Now, In Spring was shot on video but the hazy, grainy picture is perfectly adept at capturing the required mood; at once reminiscent of 1930s cinema (Jean Vigo’s Zero de Counduite also comes to mind) and dreamlike.
Defurne also has one final element to complement the picture during its end credits. Olaf Nollen, who portrays our narrator, is credited simply as ‘Olaf’, making the film seem less personal than wholly universal.
Olaf Nollen returns for Saint, Bavo Defurne’s depiction of the execution of the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian. Again, the film never seems overtly gay, though the references here are far more inclined towards Queer Cinema. Indeed, Derek Jarman’s feature debut was, of course, Sebastiane, narrating the same story though, needless to say, at far greater length than the 10 minutes available here. The almost exclusive use of looks and reactions, as well as the low-budget monochrome cinematography, recall Jean Genet’s sole foray into the cinematic medium, Un Chant d’amour, and the emphatic use of faces has an obvious forerunner in the work of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Astonishingly, this miniature holds its own against such esteemed company and, moreover, seems its own personal vision rather than the sum of its parts and influences. That said, much of Saint bears little relation to Defurne’s previous short. Whilst the black and white photography – once again by Vincent Bal – remains much the same, the effect is markedly different. As opposed to the optimism of Particularly Now, In Spring, this is a far more pessimistic work. Undoubtedly so, as this is a film dealing with deaths (and, worse, torture and execution), although it is not Sebastian’s demise which is of primary importance, rather the tension building up to it.
The soft focus cinematography and wholly deliberate grainy image once more enhance the sense of longing in the piece, as various acquaintances of the Saint gather in the woods to witness his death, though the untold passions of Defurne’s earlier film have become considerably less hidden. Coupled with a soundtrack that eschews dialogue in favour of a minimalist score and diegetic noises, their longing glances attain a special significance and provide the film with its greatest strength.
The soundscape also emphasises an impending thunderstorm, shots of which are intercut with the looks between Sebastian and his friends and executioners. Moreover, and proving that Defurne has become a much more assured filmmaker, these moments detailing the ascent of the clouds are the only ones not to be shot using either medium or extreme close-ups – further enhancing their power and emphasising the tension whilst making the piece a little less intimate.
This assuredness is even more pronounced during the film’s final moments. Of course, history informs us (as do the opening credits) that the Saint was tortured to death and it is the use of bows and arrows for the torture that provide Saint with its crowning glory. An explicit metaphor for tension and release, the weapon is employed almost playfully by the director. The expected release never comes when expected; Defurne prefers to break the rhythm he’s created over the preceding minutes, creating a bigger shock when the moment does arise. That said, the pain of the arrows finding their target is intentionally muted as esteemed theorist Roland Barthes noted of the striptease, it is “a spectacle based on fear, or rather a pretence of fear…a sort of delicious terror…(the) woman is desexualised at the very moment she is stripped”. So, in Saint, there is more pain and suffering in the moments before the execution when we see fingers poke and pass over Sebastian’s flesh, rather than in the instruments of his torture.
Matroos / Sailor
Following the twin pleasures of the first two films – near perfect pleasures in the case of Saint - the third film, Matroos, comes as a huge disappointment. Indeed, the film would seem poor on its own merits and this impression is only heightened in comparison to the earlier works. All the more shocking is the fact that this short retains much of the same crew as well as many of the same narrative devices, yet fails to unite them with its tale of the long-distance love between a young man and a sailor.
The most apparent failing is the look of the film. Vincent Bal once more returns to photograph Matroos though the decision to shoot on cheap digital video brings an amateurish air to the proceedings. Certainly, it is interesting to see Defurne work in colour, yet the almost exclusive use of studio interiors doesn’t benefit the flatness of image that video provides.
Of course, this studio-bound artificiality is intentional and the film could be interpreted as representing the dreams of its young protagonist. However, obvious budgetary restrictions fail to evoke the intended mood and the film falls well short of that classic of artificial Queer Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Genet’s Querelle - a film which also deals with a set of nautical relationships.
The other major downside of the artificiality is the crudeness of the special effects. Digitally created backdrops, whether they be the sun, the stars or the sea, fail to create any atmosphere; a problem further accentuated by the sound design. As with Saint, Defurne once more eschews dialogue, adopting instead a collection of ambient sounds. However, their readily apparent simplicity appears amateurish as there is none of the rich sound collage found in Saint, rather just a basic sound repeated ad nauseum.
None of this would matter if the story were strong enough to deflect criticism, yet Matroos carries none of the resonances found in the previous two films. Perhaps owing to the decision to make this short the first one to be overtly gay, Defurne’s tightly edited images no longer carry any tantalising hidden meanings or mysteries. Instead, the film can only be taken at face value and given the narrative’s flimsiness and numerous technical flaws, there simply isn’t all that much there.
Kampvuur / Campfire
Correcting many of Matroos’ mistakes, Kampvuur marks a pinnacle in Defurne’s career thus far – he intends to move into feature film production from now on – in as much as it collates the ideas and techniques found in his previous works and makes them more palatable for a mainstream audience by adding dialogue and shooting on 35MM stock. This is by no means a sign of the director ‘selling-out’ however. Rather, it represents a cumulative account of his work to date and proves to be just as powerful.
Centring, as before, around a young adolescent male, Kampvuur expands out the intimacies of the previous work by placing its protagonists discovery of love within a co-educational summer camp. Whilst the setting allows Defurne to return to the evocative woodland setting of Saint, it also serves to provide the addition of female characters (hitherto witnessed only briefly in Matroos), adding an extra dimension and enhancing the gay love story beyond the banalities found in his previous film.
As well as expanding his narrative, Defurne also chooses to complicate it. Despite a length of barely twenty minutes, the film seems positively epic in comparison to the other films. Whilst dialogue is employed, it is used only sparingly and when necessary; the drama being delivered, as before, via the looks and glances as love turns to ignorance and humiliation. As with Defurne’s first two films, it is the unspoken element that allows Kampvuur to gain its strength, here as potent as Saint in its juxtaposition with the landscape.
That film’s use of grainy black and white created a genuine element of beauty and Kampvuur’s splendid use of colour achieves a similar goal. Moreover, the scrappy look of Matroos is vastly improved on by the decision to shoot on celluloid. The cinematographer, Jean-Claude Neckelbrook, offers a distinctive late-summer look, a palette somewhat perversely reminiscent of numerous children’s films which nostalgically look at an idyllic childhood (normally during the 1950s or 1960s). This connection may make Kampvuur a more mainstream prospect, yet it also serves to imbue the film’s ambiguous final scene with a far greater power; the usual ‘nostalgia trip’ cinema preferring more pat happy endings.
All four shorts are presented as originally intended. The ratios are correct and the sound is in either mono or simple stereo. Given that the films were somewhat cheaply made, it’s worth pointing out that any flaws in the image are wholly the result of their production rather than the DVD transfer. That said, some scratches are evident on Kampvuur ; somewhat surprising considering that this short had the highest budget of the four and was the only one not to be filmed on either video or Super 8. This is, however, just a minor quibble and on the whole the films look fine.
Similarly, there is no reason to criticise the soundtracks. The mono and stereo mixes are perfectly adept at conveying the minimal sound designs and these are hardly the kind of films to justify surround remixes.
As for extras, we are offered a brief slideshow – consisting of various images from the shorts edited together – and a ten minute interview with the director. This piece is fine as far as it goes , though the limited duration is insufficient to cover Defurne’s career in any detail. Each short is allocated one simple question and the films themselves are so rewarding and interesting that this simply cannot do them justice. That said, a number of interesting points are raised - the distinctive look of Saint, for example, was created by accident – and Defurne is well worth listening to.