Henri Storck, Interviewed for Vertigo

By Michael Chanan and Julian Petley

symphonie-paysanne-henri-storck.jpgSymphonie paysanne, 1942-1944.

Vertigo: You have made only one full-length feature film, Le Banquet des fraudeurs (1951). Would you like to have made more?

Henri Storck: Yes, but it’s always been very difficult to make features in Belgium. In the 20s a representative of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs went to Washington and signed a convention by which the Americans would locate their automobile assembly plants in Belgium. So General Motors and Ford and other big companies came to cities like Antwerp, where there were big unemployment problems, and assembled their cars for the whole European market. They employed over 30,000 people but, as part of the deal, the Belgian car industry had to be wound up – and, in addition, the government had to relinquish any right to subsidise the film industry or to help it in any other way. Anyway, around 1937 I managed to have a law drafted which would have meant government aid for the film industry. We took it to the Prime Minister and to parliament, but as soon as news of the measure appeared in the papers the American ambassador rushed to the Prime Minister and reminded him of the terms of the convention. It was as brutal as that. So in Flanders 90% of films shown were American, and in Wallonia [which is French-speaking] 60%.

banquet-des-fraudsters-henri-storck.jpgLe Banquet des fraudeurs, 1951

V: Where were your films shown in the 1920s and 1930s?

HS: In avant-garde cinemas, and in the film clubs. The film club movement was very flourishing and widespread, and many cities still have film clubs. The audiences were large, and very keen to discuss the films they saw. Discussions were a very important part of the screenings. People learned how to look at films, but they also wanted to discuss the subjects of the films too, the real problems which they were about. The movement dates back to just after the first war. I first saw Flaherty’s films in one of the clubs in Brussels. I went to Brussels from Ostend every week to see films, and then we founded a club in Ostend. It was one of the Brussels clubs which commissioned Borinage. The largest Brussels club could take 2,500 people, and it was always full. The money it raised paid for the Belgian film archive. We always showed at least one silent film in the programme – for example, a Feuillade serial, and the public loved them. Our pianist was André Delvaux (no relation to the artist Paul Delvaux) and that’s where he learned about films. He had to study the construction of the films, to see how they were made.

images-dostende-henri-storck.jpgImages d’Ostende, 1930.

V: In Borinage you make use of reconstruction. Do you still stand by that?

HS: Oh yes, certainly. For example, in the scene with the police it would obviously have been impossible to use real police so we reconstructed the scene exactly as people told us it happened a week or two before. We used the same house and, with the exception of the police, the same people. I didn’t even have to direct it! Similarly the demonstration scene with the portrait of Karl Marx – which had happened about six months previously. The population thought it was another real demonstration!

The whole of Borinage was made by the workers themselves. We were only the photographers. The most important thing when you work on a film with people is that they have confidence in you.

V: How do you achieve that? What would you say to a film student who wanted to work like that?

HS: I don’t believe in students, nor in professors! I don’t know what to say to students. I tell them anecdotes like these, I give them examples, and then I tell them to go away and make a film and I’ll discuss it afterwards. I don’t believe in any theories of film-making. I don’t believe that any of the hundreds of thousands of books written about film have had any influence on film-making. You can learn technique and production management and all those things but you can’t teach film-making any more than you can make someone into a painter – or a chef. You need a gift, a vocation.

V: You’ve made two films on Paul Delvaux, and your wonderful series of films on Belgian carnivals is dedicated to James Ensor. You also made a film on Constant Permeke, and were a member, along with Magritte, of the Brussels surrealist group. You’re clearly very drawn to both Surrealism and Flemish Expressionism.

HS: Surrealism was on the side of anarchism and I’ve always supported anarchism. I knew Ensor, and loved his use of masks. But over and above that I really believe in Carnival because it is the only creation of the people. It’s strongly traditional. I believe that this kind of folklore is a way of expressing liberty – first of all sexual liberty, but also political liberty through the use of satire. Because people are masked and anonymous they can say what they like without fear of reprisal. These are truly popular creations, the wonderful expression of ordinary people.

V: Of all the films in the National Film Theatre retrospective, Les Gilles de Binche, one of the carnival films, was the most surreal. It was also very elaborate; how many cameras did you use?

HS: Two or three. We used four on some of the series. The most important part of the filming was always in the preparation. The year before we shot each film we visited the carnival in question. We had long discussions with the organisers and took about 6,000 stills. Before each carnival I showed the stills to the crew so that they knew in advance what would be happening. We knew that at certain times we had to have cameras in certain places. Everything happens very quickly and in a short period of time – you can’t afford to be taken by surprise. So you do most of your mise-en-scène beforehand.

V: Who, for you, are the great documentarists?

HS: Dziga Vertov, Jean Vigo, Frederick Wiseman, Johan van der Keuken, Richard Dindo, Richard Leacock, Edgar Morin.