Director: Frederik Solberg
Words – Christian Abbott
What does it mean to call a place home and what would you do to protect it?
This very question seems to be at the heart of Frederik Solberg’s film – Doel. Named after the Belgian town itself, it is surrounded by an immense industrial landscape – if you didn’t know it was there, you would never find it. Living in this town are just 26 people, all as vibrant and characterful as the next.
Solberg has created a poetic look into the lives of these people, documenting their day-to-day lives and discovering just what it’s like to live in a place as far-removed and absurd as this. But it is this absurdity that carries the film – marketed fittingly as a ghost town comedy; it is often a humorous catalogue of the larger than life personalities.
It is hard to remove itself from the absurd nature of the story; the town itself looks like it doesn’t belong, the last vestige of a simpler time. That makes no difference to those living in it as they fight to protect their homes against the threat of it being taken away from them. At first glance you would wonder why anyone would want to not only live there, but actively protect it, but the sense of community and belonging is inspiring.
Solberg’s camera has found the beauty in this strange urban land, there is a slow meditative quality to the film that brings this calm before the storm peace to it. There is a mystical feeling to it all, it’s hard to believe this place even exists (and in Belgium of all places) but it does and it is a sight to behold. Solberg’s discovery of the town seems to have been but chance, but it was one worth the visit.
We spoke to director Frederik Solberg at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018 about the film:
Q: How did you discover this story?
Frederik: My ex-girlfriend lived in Antwerp six years ago and I came to visit her. I have a Belgian friend who was also in the country at the time and he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. He asked if I knew about this ghost town, so we went there.
It is really interesting how to get there, you have to go through this massive industrial area that is really this science-fiction level of refineries and factories – like something out of Blade Runner almost. Then you get to a point that is like a nuclear power plant and a container dock, between the two you fine Doel. It’s such a fascinating and interesting way to get there and the town itself is so fascinating. When I arrived I knew instantly I had to make a film about this place.
Q: When you started the project did you know the story you wanted to tell or did it evolve as the shoot went on?
Frederik: It really changed; to begin with I had an idea of making a more political, sort of David and Goliath story. But as I started researching the town I realised that I’m not a journalist and I don’t speak Dutch so doing this sort of journalistic/political portrait was not my job and it has been done – a TV show was made a couple of years ago.
I ended up doing a more poetic and subtle portrait of this town, not fictionalised, it became a film about what it means to have a place to call home and what people will go through to fight for what they believe in as their home.
Q: Was the comedy of the film always intentional or did it arise after meeting the people of the town?
Frederik: I think we always knew there was a certain absurdity to it because you had this super sleepy ghost town that was suddenly being invaded by all kinds of people – for music videos, to bikers and techno-ravers. I knew that this was a sort of funny or humorous potential in there. My editor added or lifted the level of comedy in the film to where we thought actually this is pretty funny so we decided to call the film a ghost town comedy.
Q: How much did the editing shape the story?
Frederik: I had a storyline of three acts, an overall storyline and I imagined it a little more cynical and harsh but my editor added more humour and warmth. It is a very slow film but a very dynamic slow film because we’re editing in a way that is challenging the viewer because it’s not just straightforward. So I would say my editor made it more dynamic and added a bit of humour which I’m not sure I’d seen, at least not to begin with.
Q: What are some of the inspirations on your work?
Frederik: I like very much European arthouse films, fiction films; I’m very much into Roy Anderson, a Swedish director. I’m also a big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director. I think they have been reference points and the main inspirations for absurd portraits of everyday life. I also think some of the humour comes from them too.
Q: You talked about how there had been traditional news coverage of the town before, what do you think the difference is between the documentary film and mainstream journalism?
Frederik: That is a difficult question to answer. I would say one important aspect is time and the level of interest you have. With documentary you have time to dig into people and really discover them. With TV journalism there has to be an agenda and an angle, you have to push a certain narrative. I was not doing that, people watching my film can make up their own minds. The statement of the film is vaguer whereas TV is more sensationalist.