Kristof Hoornaert: “If you make a film for the right reason, the audience will notice it immediately”

“Resurrection” (2018) is a low-budget art-house project that lets the audience emotionally and intellectually participate. Screened at several film festivals to rave reviews, it is a non-conventional feature with hardly any dialogue, long takes, a tightly limited setting, and the impeccable interaction between the film’s leading actors. The film challenges the viewer as a rewarding cinematic and visual experience. Sadly, the film is a tough sell for distributors, though.

Without giving away too much of the essence of “Resurrection,” what you see on the screen at the beginning of the film is an elderly man (played by Johan Leysen) who has isolated himself from the outside world and encounters an unexpected visitor (Gilles De Schryver). But there’s much more to it, certainly, if you realize there’s an awful lot you won’t get to see: the viewer fills in the blanks as he gets involved in the film. And that’s exactly what first-time feature filmmaker and screenwriter Kristof Hoornaert hopes to achieve. It’s important to him to confront the audience with questions rather than sharing his opinion with them. In other words, “Resurrection” is a perfect example of his personal view and reflects what his own cinematic landscape looks like—and that’s how “Resurrection” joins the ranks of ‘auteur cinema.’

The habitat of actor Johan Leysen’s character in “Resurrection” | Fobic Films

The concept of auteur cinema, referring to filmmakers (film auteurs) with a unique style or thematic preoccupation, first appeared in France during the 1940s and covered Italian neorealism (including the work of Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini), the French New Wave (filmmakers as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda) and the New German Cinema (Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, among others). In retrospect, it goes all the way back to the early work of D.W. Griffith, Dorothy Arzner, F.W. Murnau and Orson Welles, as well as European driving forces as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Sergei Eisenstein, and up until now with the Dardenne brothers, Lars von Trier, the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro, or Christopher Nolan—among many others.

Despite being confronted with fiercely and tough competition—to say the least—“Resurrection” is Kristof Hoornaert’s brave and courageous introduction as a filmmaker. Our paths crossed in Ostend to talk about his film, which is available now on DVD (French and English subtitles are available) and can be ordered right here.

Mr. Hoornaert, how difficult was it for a debuting film director to a make personal project such as “Resurrection”?

Very difficult, but I do believe in this kind of cinema. People may criticize me because it’s non-conventional, or there is not enough dialogue, or because it’s contemplative cinema—which is totally different from narrative cinema—I can only say it comes straight from the heart. Filmmakers who inspired me in the past, people like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Robert Bresson, all created an essential, minimalist, imaginative style that I’m very fond of and that captures all the basics of cinema. ‘The camera and the sound are your tools for communication,’ Bresson once said. Now we are all used to narratives by looking at the actors and listening to the dialogue, and I perfectly understand that, but we’re no longer accustomed to capture the meaning of images. I think it would be very difficult now to show Pasolini or an Antonioni film to a young audience; it would be hard for them to digest: this particular form of communication is on a different level. Those filmmakers didn’t show nice and pretty images, they simply confronted you with questions like, ‘What are those images really telling you?’ You can compare their language and the way they expressed themselves to poetry, the way a writer uses his words to make his point. The subject is not what you do, but how you do it, that’s the way to express yourself. In “Resurrection,” it’s all about the subtext, and not about the story of an elderly man who has isolated himself from the world, and who takes a murderer into his house. It’s more about nature vs. civilization, humanity vs. civilization, the way the police forces are confronted with evil, and how they’re unable to solve a crime. In my film I wanted to decentralize them, as opposed to the way a police series usually handles crime by arresting those who committed the crime, put them in jail, and then the problem is solved. That’s what makes “Resurrection” different from the way we usually get to see it, and for the audience, it’s a totally different approach.

“Resurrection,” featuring Flemish stage and screen actor Johan Leysen | Fobic Films

What has been your experience like to make this film? Has it been rewarding and inspiring?

It is very hard to make this kind of cinema now. I wrote the screenplay in 2003 when I was twenty-three, so it took me about fourteen years to get the film made. One of the reasons is that people prefer conventional films with a good screenplay, but I personally don’t think a script is necessarily a film. Take for example, Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” [2002], or “Elephant” [2003], he only needed a one-page or two-page screenplay, and then he focused on the cinematic experience by using the language of film to bring his message across, while the script was something he only needed to get started. A script is one way to make a film and tell a story, but you can also do it entirely differently. If you look at the work of Terrence Malick, he almost sculptures his images—it’s poetry that has a lot to say, and he goes way beyond a traditional plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. As you can imagine, such projects are hard to finance, and I think it’s even getting tougher now. The 1960s, when Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pasolini, and Bresson were at work, it was an era when everyone was waiting for their films to be released, but those days are over now, and this kind of cinema is no longer in demand. The concept of film has changed. I remember the first question I was asked by a sales agent when I talked to him about “Resurrection.” He asked, ‘What’s the running time of your project?’ When I told him it was something like 110 minutes, he said to me that was simply too long for a first feature, which should meet a number of standards and criteria, themes, who the actors are, what the is the story about, and you should be able to pitch it in two minutes—and that’s really difficult. You got this preconceived idea of movies today that almost forces you to make a ‘middle of the road’ film instead of being able to make a film that pushes the boundaries.

I presume it was much easier when you did your shorts like “Kaïn” [2009] and “The Fall” [2013]?

Yes, because shorts are financially not a huge risk. I only did experimental shorts, and they were well received at film festivals in Berlin, London, and Montreal, but if you would like to do the same in a feature film, you realize that your artistic freedom is more limited than when you do a short. They’re always afraid that the audience will not understand what you do, so you’re expected to explain everything in your film. That’s exactly the opposite of what I try to do: I like my films to ask questions and not give all the answers or forcing the audience to accept my views. I don’t want to impose myself nor my ideas: I’d rather get the audience involved and, hopefully, they’ll think it over or talk about it. They should reflect on it, and be able to find the answers themselves. That’s a challenge.

So no message films?

A film shouldn’t bring a message; it should ask questions, that’s much more interesting to me.

Johan Leysen as the elder man living in isolation in Kristof Hoornaert’s “Resurrection” | Fobic Films

Would it be helpful if you’d cast an internationally renowned actor or actress, who’s also familiar with the art-house circuit?

[Actor-screenwriter] Kris Cuppens is a very good friend of mine; he co-wrote the first films directed by Joachim Lafosse. Their first two were made for approximately €10,000 each, and with Lafosse’s third feature [“Nue propriété,” 2006, a.k.a. “Private Property”], Isabelle Huppert came on board and right away, they were able to put up a huge amount of money. So yes, I guess that’s the way to do it, although it’s very difficult to cast actors such as Ms. Huppert. But an auteur project needs a household name if you want to sell it; in fact you almost need to sell your film even before you make it, strictly based on your screenplay. But if you give a screenplay to ten filmmakers, you’ll get ten different films. They direct it differently, they cast it differently… It’s very difficult to sell a screenplay to a distributor or a sales agent. You should be able to make the film first, and then let them decide what they’ll do with it, but of course, that’s impossible. On the other hand, people are still looking for auteur cinema with box office potential, although that’s very difficult to predict. From my point of view as a film director, if you have something substantial to say, and if you make a film for the right reason, the audience will notice it immediately. And if they realize that you’re truthful and honest about it, they will appreciate your work. It’s not enough to make a film about autism, burn-out or euthanasia, simply because it’s an important or a crucial theme. It will never be a good film unless it is truthful and honest. A film like “Girl” by Lukas Dhont [2018, nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign-Language Film] is a perfect example of a sincere and straightforward film, that’s why it’s so successful internationally, and that’s even a film without any well-known actors. You always have to look further than only the theme the film is dealing with, but in the end, you never know, there’s no real formula.

So if there’s really a need to make that one particular film, that’s enough to convince you?

That’s the question we should ask ourselves. And let’s not be prejudiced towards auteur cinema—often associated with dull, too serious, too slow—and simply ask, ‘Why do we make this film? Is there a need or a reason to make it?’ With the right reasons, you’ll wind up with a valuable film that will speak for itself, it will be made with passion—and it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a commercial project or an art-house film. I was in Germany recently where “Resurrection” was screened during a film festival, and the man who introduced the film to the audience said there are only two kinds of movies: art-house movies or superhero movies. But cinema has a lot more to offer, and there are much more angles to look at cinema. I also try to attend several screenings of my film, and I noticed that the audiences are mostly people over fifty. But I’m sure that you can encourage young people too to appreciate auteur cinema, and if they’re properly introduced to this film genre, it might broaden their horizon.

What about your upcoming project, “Requiem”? How is it going?

The screenplay is finished, there a number of people who have read it, and they all think it’s very impressive. I know it’s not entertaining, but it’s something I really believe in. I worked on the script every day for three years, so that implies a lot of sacrifices to finish something you really care for. It’s very time-consuming and it takes a lot of energy… Maybe I set the bar pretty high—I write an awful lot, and only very few things get made, but I think that’s part of the whole process. If you wil spend a few years of your life on a project you’re committed to do, you’d better be sure it’s all worth it. Even though my first short “Kaïn” [2009] was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, I was forced to do my next short “The Fall” [2013] entirely on my own—two people, one location, one day of shooting—just to make sure it would at least get made. And I was very fortunate because it was shown at numerous festivals and won a few awards. So I hope to get “Requiem” financed, maybe I’ll need to try to find funds abroad. I don’t think it’s a good idea to make it as a low-budget film, because I might have to make too many compromises. What I learned is that you need a very personal film if you want to get noticed abroad—pretty much like “Girl,” or “Home” [2016] by Fien Troch, films that can only be made by that particular film director and no one else.

Johan Leysen with Gilles De Schryver in “Resurrection” | Fobic Films

Is there any film that you saw recently and that you really liked?

“Cold War” [2018, originally titled “Zimna wojna,” dir. Pawel Pawlikowski], which has a lot of respect for the audience. There’s a lot of information you don’t get to see, but you pick it up as you go along. So, again, there’s no need for a filmmaker to explain everything in detail. It’s like when you go to a museum to admire a painting, there’s nobody standing next to you the whole time to explain what it’s about. When the painter was working on it, he never even thought that somebody would explain it to anyone who sees it. Everybody is supposed to look at it from his own point of view, and they will all look at it from a different perspective—and that’s perfectly fine! Film is a similar art form: you see what you want to see and what you want to pick up. Bresson once said, ‘The perfect film is a film that doesn’t show anything.’ How can you stimulate the fantasy of the audience if you show or tell everything? I do believe that if you give the audience enough room so their fantasy will fill in the blanks, they enjoy a film all the more and the experience of watching a film will be enriching and rewarding.

Do you also like to be entertained when watching a film?

Certainly, as long as it is well-made, and I don’t mind whether it’s a commercial project or not. A film like “Arrival” [2016, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner] has an interesting theme: are you still open for love when you know that one day the relationship will be doomed? That’s a very impressive Sci-Fi film which activates your thoughts and emotions. But I can’t enjoy a revenge film, for example, or actions films without any story. It’s like watching fireworks in a cinema, and I have no desire to do that.

Ostend (Belgium),
December 21, 2018

“Resurrection” (2017, trailer)

RESURRECTION (2017) DIR – SCR Kristof Hoornaert PROD Geoffrey Enthoven, Mariano Vanhoof CAM Rimvydas Leipus ED David Verdurme CAST Johan Leysen, Gilles De Schryver, Kris Cuppens, Thomas Ryckewaert