“200 to 300 minor children disappear each year”: the Dardennes return to the cinema with Tori and Lokita

Rewarded by the Prize of the 75th Cannes Film Festival last May, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne talk about “Tori and Lokita”, their new film. And the first in which they put a duet at the heart of the story.

Present for the ninth time in the Cannes Competition, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne could mark the history of the festival by becoming the first filmmakers to win a third Palme d’Or. But that will be for another time, because Tori and Lokita only received “that” the Prize for the 75th edition. An additional line on their track record, they who have won almost all possible awards on the Croisette.

In this twelfth fiction feature film, the Belgian directors follow two children from Africa whom an unwavering friendship helps to endure the conditions of their exile and the hostile environment in which they evolve. Social cinema, a register of which the Dardennes are still two of the masters. And an opus they told us about in Cannes.

AlloCiné: How do your projects come about in general? A desire to talk about a subject or characters? Or a story that you see happening and that inspires you?

Luc Dardenne : It depends. The Silence of Lorna, for example, is a news item that has been transformed into a moral fable. Rosetta is the result of various things in reality, in particular on the job, with a part of invention. As for Tori and Lokita, we obviously have the same information as all people who wish to find out and who can, concerning the presence of young unaccompanied exiled minors. As well as those who disappear and are never found.

There are some who manage to go to England, or elsewhere. But others disappear because they are killed, assassinated, and no one claims their bodies because they have no family. Information like this you have and so do we. There was already a bit of that in The Unknown Girl, with this woman who we find at the water’s edge and who is African, but there is also this story that we tried to tell about ten years: the story of a family.

We’re not talking about an actual family here, but we were inspired by one, whose daughter is named Lokita. When we talked about this story again, after having heard from psychiatrists and reread files that we already knew a little about, we saw that the greatest suffering among young minors in exile is loneliness. Being alone and feeling abandoned, in a partly hostile environment without any reference to your childhood, be it your parents, a friend, a brother or a sister . And that’s where the idea of ​​a friendship story came to us.

We then wanted to build our story around the “to be together or not to be together”. That people can be separated but that this separation is not bearable. It is from this engine that the story was built. Then came the idea of ​​having a very young child with a girl about to get papers – or not – and who is around 17 years old. So we looked for a duet à la Laurel and Hardy, without the comic side but with the idea of ​​the big and the small, and we worked on a duet, which we had never done before.

The greatest suffering among young minors in exile is loneliness

In addition to the files you consulted, were you able to meet people in the same situation as Tori and Lokita, to understand their experiences?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne : No. With leaders, managers, educators yes. We had seen them in the centers we went to, but we didn’t want to talk to them because…

Luc Dardenne: We have no legitimacy!

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We have no legitimacy to question them. And what we had read elsewhere or the stories we had been told were enough for us. Because, in a certain way, we are a bit all the same. But there are trials that some face, like them, and others do not. So we thought we could imagine how things would turn out. And what guided us in the history of these characters, that one has the objective of having his papers and that the other helps him. And it is together that they invent this story of family, of siblings.

And how this sibling, at the same time, should allow him to have his papers and help them to face and love everyday life. Because they have fun too. They laugh even if there are difficult moments. We thought that was enough, and that’s why we didn’t meet people in the same situation. I don’t know the exact figure anymore, so I’m making it up a bit, but it was still huge: we heard one day at RTBF [Radio-télévision belge de la Communauté Française] that 200 to 300 minor children disappear each year.

It doesn’t mean they die. We just don’t know where they are. Some may have made it to England, but the others have disappeared. Every year. That’s crazy ! Beyond this story that inhabited us, our main concern was to find how to put these children at the center, and make them, not people we feel sorry for, but people who fight, who want to live and help each other. And who have found a model of resistance to the hostility of their environment.

Christine Plenus – Les Films du Fleuve

Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu

What has telling the story of a duo changed for you in terms of writing and directing?

Luc Dardenne: When we design scenes and write stage directions, we imagine movements. And since there are two characters, we ask ourselves several questions and in particular: are they stationary or moving? If they are moving, then we have to wonder if they will both be in frame and if we can keep them. We try to imagine their movements, even if it’s during rehearsals that things come to life.

In the scene where they sing together, for example, we see him going to get the microphone and we see her when she comes back. She’s alone, you can see that, and the big moment is when they sing together. And we don’t pan around the room, we stay with them, singing and looking at each other. There is a great complicity that is born and suggests that they could be brother and sister. The cinema image makes us believe so in any case. And the fact of filming them together had to come into conflict with the fact that they were alone. Since they are going to be separated, they are going to want to reunite.

This is how we thought about our duet plans, compared to moments of solitude. And we tried several types of plans when they are together. Like when they have the idea of ​​taking the drugs from the bouncer: we chose to have them together, with the bag in the middle. It’s little ideas, like that, that we find especially during rehearsals with our video camera. Then the cameraman can also have ideas to which we are obviously not closed. We do not claim to have found everything during rehearsals.

For the first time, we were going to work with two young actors who were going to be at the center of the film, when neither of them had ever played

Directing a duo must have also made the casting more complicated, I imagine? Because it was necessary to find two actors who were good separately and who went well together.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Yes, because we have never seen one without the other. Even when we saw one and didn’t know yet who we were going to choose for the other. We started with Lokita [Joely Mbundu], so it was pretty quick. We had spotted it from the second work session, but we still saw others, so as not to have any remorse and not to choose too quickly. But that’s what we had chosen, even if we hadn’t formulated it that way so as not to lock ourselves in.

There are revealing things that allow us to understand whether or not it is going to be possible to work with someone. These are physical things, but there is something difficult: when you pick up a mobile phone and have a conversation with an imaginary character, without someone on the other end. She had been given a text, a simplified version of the scene with the mother, explaining to her that, as spectators, we had to have the impression that she was talking to someone, whereas she never did in his life.

We did it several times and we had the feeling that it was possible to do better, but also that she had enough concentration to make us believe that she was talking to someone. He was also asked to sing. And it was the same for the kid, but it took longer to find him. Since she was tall, we knew he had to be short, especially compared to the things he had to do in the movie, like hiding in the car. A child of 1m55 or 1m60 could not have been.

Luc Dardenne: Especially in current cars where you can no longer pass through the passenger compartment, it would have remained stuck in the trunk (laughs)

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: What also took time was that even if many were not bad, they were too expectant, a little melancholic, a little too wrapped up, not dynamic enough… But we continued, and we ended up meet little Pablo [Schils], who lives next door to most of what would be the film sets. We found him inventive, he responded to requests, with a good memory. You quickly feel when the presence that is there is the one with whom you are going to work, the one that will give life to the character. And for the first time, we were going to work with two young actors who were going to be at the center of the film, although neither of them had ever acted.

Each time, with us, that a teenager played for the first time, he had an adult as a partner. There they are two, and we also had to find the balance to make them both exist together without being directive, but with enough indications to give him confidence. Pablo is very physical. They both are, by the way. And they quickly had confidence in us and saw that, like them, we were looking. At first, they thought we were going to say everything, that everything was going to come. But no, and it is by repeating that we have found.

Interview by Maximilien Pierrette in Cannes on May 26, 2022

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“200 to 300 minor children disappear each year”: the Dardennes return to the cinema with Tori and Lokita