Charleroi, The Land of 60 Mountains
Before Israel was created, a frontier outpost for Jews from around the world was established by Stalin in the far east of Russia, near the Chinese border. Its administrative centre was the town of Birobidjan, on the Trans-Siberian railway. Any illusions the Soviet leader did this out of altruism faded when he targeted the territory for purges. Belgian filmmaker Guy-Marc Hinant, who has a keen feel for places in decline, excavated the links between the past and present of this little-told-of settlement in his poetic and multi-layered 2015 documentary portrait Birobidjan. His latest documentary Charleroi, The Land of 60 Mountains circles back upon the dream, now a distant spectre, of this promised homeland.
A city has multiple possibilities
It was inspired by the story of Benjamin Silberberg, whose family planned to emigrate to Birobidjan from their home in Charleroi in 1934. The journey never came to pass, as they got caught up in the war and landed instead in Auschwitz. Hometown of the director himself, the Belgian city of Charleroi has effectively become the inverse of a promised haven. Once a hub of socialism, it was a harbour for Jews fleeing racial persecution in the pre-war era. But it took a «bad turn» after emerging from German occupation and, blighted by factory closures and mayoral corruption, is now mocked from outside as a hellhole where nobody would want to live. With fine-tuned antennae for the emotional waves of longing and regret that affix to place, Hinant reanimates Charleroi’s possibilities and our understanding of the city as irreducibly multiple, resisting its oblivion by mining the endless threads of memory and incident that have over the last century played out on its terrain.
«There are two worlds: the one on top and the one below», a narrator tells us. A restless and searching camera glides around Charleroi. Its abandoned industrial sites and spoil tips, from the height of its coal mining and steel days, are a visual corollary to the high unemployment and mood of general despair that have pervaded the town. The atmosphere is charged. Often moving through twilight or darkness, the camera-eye is like a ghost surveying its roaming ground for the past’s traces to bring the hidden back into view. It’s an approach that sees place as much more than just bricks, mortar and statistics, but an entity infused with mythology that in turn shapes its inhabitants through chance echoes and constellations.
Rebranding a disparaged city
This ties into a tradition of psychogeography; a poetic practice perfected by Jewish wartime writers of anxiety and displacement such as Walter Benjamin, by which the details of urban exploration can jolt us into a new awareness of our surroundings. A quote from English comic-book legend and psychogeographer Alan Moore opens our drift through Charleroi in the film: «There were fossil seams of ghosts». In other words, this is a city that not only literally drew its economy from mines underground – its very history is ripe for excavation.
«Place is an entity infused with mythology that shapes its inhabitants through chance echoes and constellations.»
References to a number of figures whose imaginations have been entwined with Charleroi are woven through the film, such as René Magritte. The Belgian surrealist and subversive leftist married the daughter of a Charleroi butcher, and his mother drowned herself in the river Sambre, which runs through the city. A notion that the streets there should be named not after kings and soldiers but scholars and poets is suggested as a means to harness the symbolic power of naming; an acknowledgement that cities reside in how we choose to frame and define them, as much as in the raw reality visible before us. It is not only famed creative types that Hinant relies on as compass points. A visit is paid to a homeless encampment in current-day Charleroi, a loose group of tents presided over by a frame worker who lost his construction job, but is hopeful his skilled hands will make a comeback. Reinvention and carving out one’s place are ongoing projects in a city that is itself in constant flux.
If slag heaps were mountains
The film’s title Charleroi, The Land of 60 Mountains refers to the observation of an architect, who says that if all the slag heaps had been kept after the decline of industry in the city, there could have been 60 mountains in Charleroi now. The urge to resist erasure takes on its most potent force when it comes to the residents themselves. Silberberg’s family was not the only one, after all, for whom a refuge of safety was chimerical.
«The camera-eye is like a ghost surveying its roaming ground for the past’s traces, to bring the hidden back into view.»
Hinant hears from an historian one of the most haunting yet fortifying stories the city has to tell. In 1942, occupying Nazis asked for the names and addresses of all the Jews living in Charleroi (there were around 1,300) so that they could be sent for «compulsory work in eastern Europe». Resistance activist Max Katz and colleagues supplied a false list and managed to tip off all but 23 victims to leave immediately – a courageous act of defiance that remains as much a part of the place’s fabric as its current fortunes.
While each human is only around for seventy or so years (if they’re lucky), the temporality of cities stretches out longer. Hinant reminds us to take a wider view, and that it takes just a little digging to reveal wonders.