Carmen Gray
Carmen is a freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

Filmmaker Guy-Marc Hinant attempts to reclaim the good name of his hometown by uncovering lost stories long hidden within the slag heaps of the city’s memory.

Charleroi, The Land of 60 Mountains

Guy-Marc Hinant

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.

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