“Umpire” – Leonardo Van Dijl: Interview

Umpire is the 2nd short film by Leonardo Van Dijl (24 years old). His 1st short called Get Ripped was his graduation film for Sint Lukas Arts School in Brussels and was also selected for the Short Film Festival in Leuven in 2013. Leonardo Van Dijl is a familiar face for fans of the festival. Umpire is up for competition in the Vlaamse Fictie 4-series.

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Umpire tells the story of Axelle (Lilith Kempynck), a young promising tennis player who has a special relationship with her trainer Jeremy (Benjamin Ramon). He films the trainings with the girls, but also in their spare time he uses his handheld camera to capture their moments together. One day, Jeremy gets arrested and Axelle, unknowing of what happened, gets heared by the federal police. Afterwards, the trainer gets suspended and the rumours start.

The focus of this short film definitely lies on the young girls.  Therefore, there is the constant switch between what happened on and off the tennis field, and the hearings by the police. Mainly, it seems to be all about Axelle, but what you wonder about, is whether she was exclusive to him, or whether he also abused her 2 other friends (performed by Alexandra Lymarev and Mirthe Tavernier).

The film has an open end for both Axelle and the audience. For Axelle, because she is passionately waiting for Jeremy to come back, and for us, because we will never really know what happened and have to make our own conclusions.

I met Leonardo Van Dijl at the festival and had a talk with him about his work in general and Umpire in specific. From what I can tell, he is very ambitious, yet down to earth. The film and the conversation made me realise that this short film is not only about the young Axelle, but it tells the story of so many girls and women around the world, that it was even hard for me at times to imagine that Umpire is actually made by a man. The interview tells you why.

What does the title Umpire exactly mean?

An umpire is a judge in tennis games and therefore symbolically refers to Axelle. In the entire proces, she is the real judge, the one who has to decide for herself whether her trainer Jeremy crossed the line or not.

Aren’t you scared that people would mix it up with Kristof Hoornaert’s Empire, which is also selected in this year’s competition?

No, I’m not, although I first thought about maybe changing the title of Umpire, when I heard about Hoornaert’s film. But eventually, I stuck to what felt right. Also , what we do is so different, that I cannot really feel threatened by it, although we are in the same competition. It would have definitely been the other way around, when it was a film by another student.

Where did you find the actors? Did you do proper castings?

I did castings and first I casted Mirthe (Tavernier) for a role, when she told me she had a friend (Lilith Kempynck) who played tennis with her. Lilith thought she would be an extra, but she ended up in the main part and did great. Alexandra (Lymarev) I already knew from other projects.

You are from West-Flanders, but the actors are clearly from Antwerp. Where did you shoot the film and was this a conscious decision?

I made the film in the area around Brasschaat and Schoten, because of very practical reasons. Most of the actors are from Antwerp, except for Lilith, who is from Brussels. In that way it was very easy for everyone to reach the set and to reduce the costs for things like taxis. Another advantage is that these villages have plenty of sports clubs and tennis fields.

Also, I am in favour of a realistic approach. I don’t believe that different dialects in one short film add up to the film’s credibility. Once I knew that the actors mainly spoke AN or The Antwerp dialect, like Alexandra, I casted the others in this part of the country as well.

Is the story plot- or character-driven? Or would you rather leave this open to the audience’s own interpretation?

Umpire is character-driven. That is also why it has an open end. I want the audience to look at Axelle and to understand what she is going through in this situation. I wanted to highlight her point of view.

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Photo credit: Lara Gasparotto

A remarkable scene is the hearing at the police station, where the officers are shot from the back and serve as some kind of frame for Axelle, who is sitting in the middle. The officers are also out of focus. Any reason for this kind of technique?

Before I started the production, I did a lot of reading, especially on Laura Mulvey and her theory of the ‘male gaze’ in cinema. That is also why only the female officer asks questions, if you noticed that. Umpire is a film carried by women, not by men, but stll it has something voyeuristic, also because of Jeremy’s shots with the handheld camera. I use a lot of symbolism in the way of shooting the girls, like with a net between them and the camera, to keep a distance, but at the same time you still feel with them and become subordinate to this ‘male gaze’. It is a very fascinating thing.

Is there any moral message you’d like to convey with Umpire?

Not in that sense of the word, but I would like to point out that there is much more to sexual abuse than people think. They always talk about a culprit and a victim.  Sometimes it is a doubtful thing to talk about a victim, because they are unaware of that position. Just like Axelle. That is also why I chose a tennis club as social context, because these are the kinds of places where young people idolise their trainers, especially when they are handsome like Jeremy. They don’t always see whether their relatonship with their trainer is acceptable or not. I would like to point out how strongly these girls are manipulated and how they can struggle with the perception that they are complicit. That is why you see Axelle becoming mad during the hearing. She defends Jeremy in her very own way. The feelings of shame and guilt  often keeps girls like Axelle silent.

Next to short films, you also direct videoclips for Belgian bands like Clouseau, Oscar & The Wolf and School is Cool. Ar you going to stick to videclips and short films? Or do you have any ambitions to make a feature film?

Well, I would like to try everything. I love the videclips, but I also love making the short films, because those I can call my own. I’ll have to see what the future brings.

Thank you for the lovely interview, Leonardo!

Check the Facebook-page for more information.

Or check his Vimeo for more work and videoclips.

NB: In the night of December 4t, the VAF (Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds) Wildcards were distributed. Umpire won a Fiction Wildcard, which is a fee of €60.000.


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