“Tori and Lokita” by the Dardenne brothers: “Simplicity is our obsession”

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This is the story of two African minors who arrived alone in Belgium. Waiting for papers, Tori and Lokita must fight for their survival. Through the misfortunes that befall the young Beninese boy and the young Cameroonian girl, then appear the excesses and flaws of our Western societies. Interview with directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

RFI: Who is Tori? ?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne : Tori is a young boy, aged twelve, originally from Benin. Arrived in Belgium, he is what we call at home “unaccompanied foreign minors”. Tori is part of a center that accommodates these unaccompanied minors in Belgium. He came to Belgium because he was hunted down in his country, considered a child witch by his family, therefore threatened with death. For this he fled.

Who is Lokita ?

Luc Dardenne : Lokita is a young girl who is 17 and a half years old. She is waiting for papers to be able to stay in Belgium. As she does not get her papers, then she should return to her country, Cameroon. She came from northern Cameroon as a “mandated child”, that is to say mandated by her family to earn some money in Europe and send it regularly to her family. So she has to find some work or go to school to learn a trade. But for that, she is still a bit young. She is the one who will be Tori’s friend and who will invent a story with Tori to say that: by being her sister, he could get her papers.

A few months ago, during the world premiere of your film at the Cannes Film Festival, you experienced an incredible ovation after the screening, applause for about twenty minutes. The spectators were very moved and gave the impression that for them, this film was much more than a film. For you, is your film more than a film ?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne : I don’t much like talking in those terms. I wouldn’t say it’s more than a film, but it’s also a look at today’s world. A look that tells this story of friendship. It is also a denunciatory glance of the fate which is reserved for these children when they arrive here. These children who come from Africa or elsewhere, many come from Ukraine now. The way they are received and welcomed here, the precariousness of their status, throw them into the hands of all that is worst in our societies. For this, the public sees a film, but also a denunciation of a terribly unjust situation that is happening today in Western Europe.

You said that Lokita dies in the film so that we can change the law regarding underage immigrants and so that others can stay alive. Is it the role of a film to call for political change ?

Luc Dardenne : I’m not saying that we make films for that, but there can be that resonance. When we did Rosetta [Palme d’or en 1999 au Festival de Cannes, NDLR]our Minister of Employment and Labor in Belgium proposed a law, called it Rosettathe unions had the law changed so that it was like in the film, that is to say that she could even be entitled to the plan Rosetta after losing a first job, a second job. So, yes, I think a film can have resonance. I’m not saying it can save the world, because these are ultimately religious expressions, but in any case, a film can help change things. That’s for sure. And it can help break down some prejudices. When we see our two characters, they didn’t come to take anything in the country, steal it or destroy a national identity… They come here to live, friendly, with the population. They are just trying to manage to survive, since they need these papers. If they didn’t need these papers, if they weren’t threatened with being sent back to their country, what happened to them wouldn’t have happened to them. What the little one says at the end of the film.

Your stories always come across as incredibly simple. Tori and Lokita, it is the story of two characters in two or three places. Despite this simplicity, you manage to restore an entire society, living it together, the ties that bind us, but also its excesses such as economic and sexual exploitation, injustice… How do you proceed? Do you simplify a complex story or, on the contrary, do you enrich a simple story with lots of details ?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne : The fundamental thing, the motor of the film, is their friendship. How does this story of friendship allow them to escape the traps set for them? How can they get away with it? How can they live, because these children love life. How can they support each other in their daily lives? Without that, there is no film.From the start, we try to be as simple as possible. We had two characters, Tori and Lokita. We have always seen them together. The fact of separating them was to show how they could not do without each other…

Simplicity is a bit of our obsession. It’s this simplicity that allows the characters to really exist, to really be there. We are building a story, but our characters must not become objects of this story. They must remain subjects. They are caught up in a story, but they are the guides. They should not be overscripted and put in situations that put the directors in an overhanging point of view in relation to their characters. There are some who make films like that and they are very good, but we try to live up to our characters.

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“Tori and Lokita” by the Dardenne brothers: “Simplicity is our obsession”