The diverse cast and brutal realism of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s crime drama “Black” breaks new ground for the Belgian film industry.
The people of Belgium had to wait (im)patiently for quite some time for the release of the romantic drama Black by their own Adil El Arbi (age 27) and Bilall Fallah (29). Both Belgian directors from Moroccan origin spent their time usefully, promoting the film based on the bestseller young adult novels by Dirk Bracke titled Black, and its sequel, Back. Today, 11/11, is the day the Belgian cinema-goer has been waiting for, Black’s official theatrical release. However, the Flemish premiere has already taken place, on October 19th at Film Fest Ghent, and I had the chance to attend.
Black tells the Shakespearian tale of the 15-year Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), who joins a street gang called The Black Bronx. Consequently, she gets involved in Brussels’ criminal scene of violence, drugs and theft. Parallel to The Black Bronx, we meet their rival Moroccan gang, The 1080’s, to which Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaïhi) belongs. All members of both gangs have to obey to strict rules when it comes to loyalty: quitting is no option. After some incidents with the police, both Marwan and Mavela get arrested and that is when they meet and eventually fall for each other. They try to keep their love a secret, but what happens when they get discovered?
Like many others at the premiere, I had already been quite excited for Black for a couple of months, because I followed the boys’ promo campaign on the social media, read both the original books, and because Black had already won its first award, the Dropbox Discovery Award at TIFF, 2 months before its official release.
The Flemish premiere was an opportunity I couldn’t miss, because the screening was hosted by El Arbi, Fallah and the two leading actors. Both young actors are on their way to becoming cinema’s next big revelation. But the other young actors who played the gang members also blew me away, almost literally. Soufiane Chilah, who plays Marwan’s older brother and the leader of The 1080’s, and Manuel Tahon, who plays the very violent gang leader of The Black Bronx called X, both look so intimidating and dangerous on screen that I was almost scared to meet them in real life.
Some of El Arbi and Fallah’s colleagues from Hakuna Casting attended the screening as well, supporting the two young directors and the even younger leading actors. Hakuna Casting stands for diversity in the Belgian media, and provided Black’s cast with only non-professional young actors, almost literally picked off of the street.
The result of this is phenomenal, but I will admit that it also holds a big risk. Most Belgian cinema-goers would rather go and watch a Flemish film with a cast of well-known and praised actors than voluntarily opt for a film that only stars unknown actors from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds instead of the usual Caucasians. To me this is yet another reason why Belgium needs more films like this: the media has to get more acquainted with the diversity of Belgian society, because it is partly the media that influences our tolerance towards one another, no matter our gender, sexuality or race.
The multicultural cast is one of Black’s strengths. The film is set in Brussels, the Belgian capital, and therefore the language of communication is mainly French, but the characters sometimes switch to Dutch or Arabic as well, which adds authenticity and credibility to the film, since Brussels – and Belgium in general – is one of the most multicultural places in Europe.
Brussels does not only function as Black‘s setting, but also as an important motif to point at this diversity. Several establishing shots provide the audience with city views of Brussels as it is: beautiful and intimidating at the same time. These perfectly symmetrical and well-balanced shots make the film recognizably confronting for the Belgian audience.
The soundtrack is also worthy of note. The film includes a cover of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black composed by the young and talented Hannes De Maeyer and performed by Belgium’s sweetheart Oscar & The Wolf. Although the song is a cover, it holds the potential to become a big hit even across the Belgian borders.
All the above-mentioned elements point out that Black is a 100% Belgian product and therefore deserves nothing but praise. And with some rather rough and violent scenes, this is a film that truly gets under your skin. You can call Black the Belgian equivalent to Kassovits’ La Haine (1995) or Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus (2003).
After the screening, I randomly talked to people from the audience. Some of them had fallen in love with the film straight away, and others compared it to El Arbi and Fallah’s first film Image (2014), which was not as technically sophisticated as Black. Others were shocked by all the violence in the film and considered it to be a bit too much. Either way, positive or negative, all of them were really impressed.
When they gave me the opportunity to enter the reception of Black, along with only the top-notch of the Belgian film industry, I obviously couldn’t say no. Although the opinions among the audience were split, at the reception I heard nothing but praise. Also, those young actors of Black, who looked so threatening on screen, are actually the most friendly and modest youngsters you can ever meet.
In an attempt to talk to both the directors about the film, they frequently got ambushed by fans and I was asked to take some pictures of them – yes, it seems I just changed professions here – and there was no chance for me to have an interview with them. But the audience’s reactions say enough. Black won the Port of Ghent Audience Award at Film Fest Ghent on October 26th, and was selected for this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
I experienced some Hollywood vibes that night at the premiere, and like some might already know, El Arbi and Fallah took off to LA the morning after the premiere. They signed a contract with the prestigious American Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which might give them the chance to work with some of Hollywood’s biggest such as Kate Winslet, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, George Clooney, Daniel Craig and many many more. No more little Hollywood in Flanders. As the boys themselves would say: shit just got real! So fingers crossed for Black to be exported to UK cinemas soon!
Visit black-themovie.com for more info. Read my interview with Bilall Fallah and Chafic Amraoui as part of my feature on production.
Nota bene: this lady taking a picture of Biall Fallah and fans is me 🙂