Tuesday 2 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 1: Borinage (w/ Joris Ivens, 1933)

It is hard to overstate the importance of Henri Storck's contribution to documentary film.  The Oostende native was one of the founders of the Royal Belgian Film Archive and appeared in two classics of 20th century cinema: Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  These achievements alone would make for a formidable CV before you even begin to consider Storck's 50+ years as a director.  Storck died 20 years ago, but we can still see much of his pioneering work thanks to the archive he helped establish; Cinematek (as the KBF is now known) have released an excellent series of Blu-ray/DVD sets featuring some of the director's best documentaries.  Over the next few posts, we'll take a look at one of these sets, a dual-format release containing three titles known as "the social films".  Although rather expensive, this release (and Cinematek's work in general) is definitely worthy of your time and money.  The discs are region-free, and Dutch, English and French options are included, as is a nice booklet with notes in all three languages; it's clear that Cinematek are really pushing for Storck's work to reach as wide an audience as possible.

The first film in the set, Borinage, is arguably Storck's finest (half) hour.  It is a collaboration between Storck and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, and it documents the effects of the miners' strike of 1932 in the area of the title.  Ivens and Storck initially set out to make a balanced, objective documentary on a subject most of Belgium was indifferent towards, but upon arriving in the Borinage and witnessing the abject poverty and appalling living conditions firsthand, the pair soon changed tack.  The unsympathetic nature of both mine owners and police is plain to see, and Storck and Ivens formed a good relationship with the striking miners and their families.  While the filmmakers were able to capture genuine footage, they also collaborated with the workers in order to film reconstructed scenes (a practice Storck would return to in future films), with the impoverished miners accepting nothing more than bread as payment for their efforts.

The scale of the poverty on display here really has to be seen to be believed, and it is incredible to think that this is 20th century western Europe on film.  The inhabitants of the overcrowded hovels are shown resorting to increasingly desperate measures, ranging from using their own floorboards as firewood to drinking from a flooded cellar in the absence of potable water.  It's the sort of thing you might read about in Zola (whose Germinal, filmed by Claude Berri in 1993, unfolded against the backdrop of a miners' strike), but seeing real footage of starving, unwashed, uneducated children facing yet another interminably bleak day is a most upsetting experience.

Borinage was originally a silent film which played with Dutch and French intertitles, although in the 1960s these were replaced by a voiceover by Cinematek co-founder André Thirifays; this later version is the one included on the Cinematek DVD.  The absence of dialogue somehow lends a greater authenticity to the work, although Storck would change his approach when it came to the next entry in the "social films" set (De huizen van ellende), which we'll discuss in an upcoming post.  Henri Storck didn't stay wholly rooted in the documentary format, and even directed a fictional feature film (1952's The Smugglers' Banquet); his working methods were a clear influence on many, including his compatriot Agnès Varda.  Please give half an hour of your time to Borinage if you've never seen it - it's a remarkable documentary, and its preservation alone is a major cause for celebration.

Darren Arnold

Image: NOS [CC BY-SA 3.0 NL]