I’m 5 years old in this photo and I’m on my mother’s lap, Hilbe. The image was taken during a vacation in Portugal, on the terrace of a hotel room. Shortly after, my parents separated. It was around the time of the release of Titanic, an event in the year 1998. I remember that my mother went to see it and that it had been a strong emotion for her. She was unhappy, in the process of ending a love affair, and diving into this intense romance made her feel good, at least that’s the impression I had.
To my little brother, Michiel, and to me, she told a few things: I knew it was on a boat, that the story was based on real events. Above all, she spoke about it with light in her eyes, with such enthusiasm that I was fascinated by the impact a film could have on someone.
Afterwards, I asked him to tell me more. Every evening, at bedtime, she would tell me a scene from the film. I didn’t really know how to write, I think, but I noted, I scribbled things, I wanted to capture what she was telling me. I discovered Titanic much later and recognized in it what she had described to me. Watching it, I was like, “Wow, I want to make movies to do this, to tell great stories.” It clicked: I wanted to be, in a way, the Flemish James Cameron!
Mom, who worked in fashion, took us to the theater and cinema a lot. It was with great excitement that we went to see animated films in Ghent, fifteen minutes from our home, at Studio Skoop – the room I still go to today. These were moments I looked forward to. Then, when I was 12, she gave me a camera. With, I started to film everything. I made my mother and my little brother my actors.
Recently, she found a tape that she had digitized. So embarrassing! It’s called The Island of Coco: we see my brother in the garden, who obeys me perfectly and does everything to be in the frame, and my mother who plays the guardian of the island, which we feel she can’t stand being filmed all the time…
Today, I talk to her about my doubts, my difficulties as a director. Seeing me work, she understands that cinema requires a lot of patience, pressure, work, self-sacrifice. We like to walk, chat, before going to eat something together – she loves cakes. She always tells me about the films she sees and me, each time I discover one that she might like, I bring her the DVD. Recently, I introduced her to Ammonite [by Francis Lee], with Kate Winslet, whom she has admired since Titanic.
When I showed Girl, my first film, for the very first time at Cannes, in 2018, my mother had not seen it. We had completed the post-production at the very last minute in Amsterdam. She came to the Festival, sat right in the row behind me during the screening. When the movie was over, I saw her face bathed in tears. I was crying too because it seemed like a highlight in my young career.
But when I think about it today, I think I was crying above all to see her moved, I was crying at the idea that a film I had made could have touched her. From the beginning, I wanted to succeed in recreating what Titanic had been able to give him. I think it was to be able to touch her that I became a filmmaker.