I’m at an arts center in Brussels, waiting to see a movie and trying to look Belgian. Or at least not American. Or at least not like an American who’s here without purpose, floating through this city for a few days because, for the first time in many years, she happens to be in Europe. Because I know almost nothing about actually beingBelgian, though, my strategy is basically just to look bored. As if, like the other theatergoers, I’m here simply to support the arts festival that’s taking place, not cataloguing the hip crowd of people chattering around me in French and Dutch, nor analyzing their sensibly edgy way of dressing, nor contemplating the drizzling rain outside the wall of windows that covers the tourist pubs and designer clothing boutiques with a faint gray haze. As if everything is vaguely pleasing but ordinary. There’s something childlike both in my desire to hide and the belief that it is necessary and possible to do so, and I find myself wondering if the skittishness that comes over me when I travel is a version of what everyone feels when she is alone and in a foreign place, or if this feeling speaks to some larger weakness specific to me.
When the theater doors open just a few minutes before the movie is scheduled to start, I find a seat, flip through the program notes, and am surprised to see the name of my current city, Baltimore, MD, in the first paragraph. According to the program, this documentary, like the American television series The Wire, uses wires as a means of exploring themes of connection and disconnection. The movie, Grands Travaux, focuses on a group of teenagers enrolled in an electrical school in Brussels. Though the program asserts that, “Baltimore is not Brussels, and the youth from the fictional series The Wire do not follow lessons at the Anneessens-Funck vocational school in the documentary film Grands Travaux,” it nevertheless admits that, “both are resolutely committed to the question of how people are in the world today, in relation to employment, education, and future prospects.”
The program is several pages long with all of the text printed in Dutch, French, and English, but when the lights go down and the movie begins, I realize that I’ve misread the arts festival’s website and this particular movie has no English subtitles. The two primary languages of the film are Dutch and French, subtitles alternating for the language not being spoken, and then sometimes the students, almost all of whom seem to be immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, speak in another language, so both Dutch and French subtitles appear side by side. It’s clear that since I speak neither Dutch nor French I’m not going to understand very much of the movie, but I can’t make myself get up and leave. I’m in the middle of the row, and it’s very dark in the theater, and also, maybe, it seems preferable to me to sit through an entire movie I can’t understand rather than to admit that I have been pretending to belong.
I don’t get up, and then it seems too late to get up, and then I’m sort of into the movie. I don’t understand any of the Dutch subtitles or any spoken dialogue in either language, but I can follow some of the French subtitles, and I can understand a fair amount about what’s happening simply from the images on the screen. I watch the students pull wires through a ceiling, chatter about sports, and talk about girls. I watch a gray-scale video flicker in and out on a small screen while they try to install a security camera. In a career class, they practice being interviewed for jobs and in another class (maybe a language class?), they each give slideshow presentations ranging from a generic overview of climate change to a series of moving images showing the destruction in Iraq that caused a boy’s family to flee. The boys, who seem to be about fifteen or sixteen, shift back and forth between childish giggling and adult poise. Some of them seem relaxed at school, skilled at electrical work, and likely to find employment when they graduate, while other students look totally overwhelmed and ill-suited for electrical work. One of the students gets scolded by a teacher about his poor performance and lectured about the opportunities he’s been given to improve the financial situation of his family. The teacher drones on; the boy stares ahead, impassive. Later we watch this same boy looking around a classroom, panicked, while he and his classmates take a written test. For most of the movie, I’m guessing at what’s happening and understanding only the broadest strokes, but this adds to the feeling I have for the boys in the group who struggle to find a place for themselves and who—because the movie is shot almost entirely within the school—appear to be caught in a windowless world with wires snaking out to places that they themselves can’t access.
In a printed interview distributed after the movie, the filmmakers resist the political interpretations of their movie that see their work as a commentary on the Paris and Brussels attacks. Instead, they caution against media coverage and documentaries in which young people “are only called upon to illustrate themes such as violence, educational deprivation, unemployment, poverty, and so on.” The creators acknowledge that the film has sparked interest, in part, because one of the November 2015 Paris attackers, Bilal Hadfi, attended the Anneessens-Funck vocational school, but they insist that their purpose in making the film was never to address these issues directly but rather to showcase the daily lives of four specific boys: “The point is not to deny those expectations but rather to contextualize or reject them through your film.” This response strikes me as fair, maybe even responsible, but also incomplete and unsatisfying. I want the filmmakers to tell me more of the story and what I should think about it. I want to know where the boys’ families are from and what their lives are like outside of this school. I want to know if they found jobs. I want to know if the estrangement and hope I saw in the boys’ faces was predictive of their lives to come. In other words, I want to know the boys’ answers to the same questions that I find unanswerable in my own life: what happens next, will things be okay? In some far off future, looking back on this moment, what would you tell yourself to do?
Marian Crotty is an Assistant Editor for The Common.
Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Stephane Mignon.