Gods of Molenbeek
Finland, Belgium, Germany, 2018. 73min
How does one talk about a film that feels a little too perfect, too clean, maybe even too thought-out? A part of me wants to shake it up a bit, welcome a few rough edges in the way pictures meet pictures.
Elegantly-crafted Gods of Molenbeek does everything right, uses imaginative visual ledes, shot from the point of view of young children, but it can feel like so many films that have a dozen producers and funders involved: ironed out and cleaned up. It is a great example, however, of how to introduce all sorts of thoughts about God, gods and eternity to a young audience.
The Finnish director, Reetta Huhtanen accompanies two boys, and sometimes a girl, all about the age of 6, who discover different ways of thinking about and worshiping god(s), and speculate about what happens after death and other cosmological matters.
The boys live in the same building and toodle around in the courtyard below, never seem to be still, and chatter away.
Aatos and Amine are deep thinkers, bright and curious. Though neighbours, they come from totally different backgrounds. Aatos is Finnish and Chilean, he speaks French, Finnish and Spanish and attends a Steiner school; Amine comes from a observant Moroccan Muslim family, possibly attends a public school, and is seen in a classroom learning Arabic ( it isn’t uncommon in Brussels for Arabic to be available as an elective language in public schools).
So what does childhood look and sound like for children growing up in a densely populated, multi-ethnic neighbourhood that has been labelled by the hot press to be a centre of jihadist activity? The director responds by keeping her point of view as close to that of the boys, as possible.
Molenbeek is felt day to day in this film, from the perspective of the children.
Filming children can be tricky business especially if they are very young; all the power lies with the filmmakers. Gods of Molenbeek is a best-practice example of how to film children with respect: they have room to express themselves, the camera doesn’t exploit moments of distress – the lens doesn’t pry unfairly – and the camera is usually lower than the children’s heads with the lens often tilted upward, making them look powerful. The boys sparkle together. French is their common language, but they share neither religion nor mythologies.
From peace to turmoil
If you’ve been to Molenbeek, the modest Brussels neighbourhood where they live, then you know that it is layered with people who have their roots all over the world. The large and visible Muslim population is not uniform, and many, many Moroccan families can trace their migration to Belgium to the middle of the last century, when Belgium recruited labourers for its mines and industry.
The ordinary truth is the strength of neighbourly ties and friendships that make it possible for people of different faiths and ethnicities there to get along.
In Molenbeek, life can be in your face. The sidewalks, as in the rest of the city, are narrow and uneven but the density is typical of poorer neighbourhoods; little greenery is on the streets, but typically in skinny backyards or the courtyards shared with multiple dwellings. Arabic is heard faintly in many of the film’s outdoor scenes, on the same level as the din of children playing a block away.
Meanwhile the boys bounce between languages, sometimes with a parent teaching them their religion or when play-acting a nordic god; Aatos’ other friend, a girl who doesn’t believe in God at all, chooses instead to call it all Nature. And so, Molenbeek is felt day to day in this film, from the perspective of the children, to be an accepting place where no one, it seems, is just one thing.
We are carried along from shot to shot by the charm of the children’s minds.
That is the big story in this film. There is hardly any explicit conflict, per se – only discovery – and we are carried along from shot to shot by the charm of the children’s minds. Then comes the drama that punctuates the year: a wave of bombs that leaves many dead and wounded has ripped Paris and Brussels.
Extra military vehicles roll on the street, a soldier or policeman in riot gear, armed, checks a school backpack; a radio speaking the news (added to a shot later?) relates what’s what. It seems a perpetrator comes from the quarter or has found refuge here. How big is this network?
But it’s Brussels after all, and a whole neighbourhood has been slandered: people who live in Molenbeek, all kinds of people, demonstrate in defence of their quarter; Muslims especially join their other neighbours in front of the cameras, side by side, against «Terrorism.»
And yet, the film doesn’t expand this trauma to adult size: Gods of Molenbeek relates it in the way the boys themselves seem to experience it. The demonstrations come and go, and soon it doesn’t really touch them directly, though the radio continues to drop news updates softly into the ambient sound. This is a fine calibration for the director and editor to have made.
Gods of Molenbeek is a best-practices example of how to film children with respect.
One feels the hand of the director on this film, perhaps guiding the topics the boys bring up with one another (lots and lots about God), perhaps steering where, how and with whom they play (off to the woods; out to buy fabric for Poseidon’s cape; off to the mosque together). But the friendships feel authentic, the conversations between the kids natural, as if this were a play-date with film crew, where the camera is just taken for granted and soon ignored. It’s a lot harder to achieve this than it looks!