Dardenne brothers give voices to the underrepresented at JIFF in ‘Tori and Lokita'

Left, Luc Dardenne, left, with his brother Jean-Pierre Dardenne, speaks during the opening ceremony for the 24th Jeonju International Film Festival on Thursday. [JIFF]

The Cannes-awarded filmmaking duo, the Dardenne brothers, are famed for their documentary-like films that shed light on the lives of young humans whose voices often go unheard. To the brothers, making films to amplify these voices and help juvenile minorities is what it truly means to be an adult.

“I think that understanding and respecting others’ lives is what it means to be an adult,” Jean-Pierre Dardenne said during an interview with local press in Jeonju, North Jeolla, on Friday. “Our new film ‘Tori and Lokita,’ which we are showing here at the 24th Jeonju International Film Festival [JIFF], is also about this.”

The 24th JIFF kicked off on Thursday with a screening of "Tori and Lokita" and runs through May 6.

The opening film is about the hardships and prejudices two migrant children from Africa — Tori and Lokita — face as they try to settle in Belgium. The film is told in the Dardenne brothers’ signature style that mixes documentary-like elements with fiction to tell a candid story about those marginalized by society.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have continuously shed light on societal issues through their films, including in “Two Days, One Night” (2014) and “Young Ahmed” (2019). Their careers started as documentary producers, but they turned to fictional film in the mid-1990s with “The Promise” (1996). The duo is often credited as being masters of the neorealist style, in which themes such as the working class are expressed through realistic portrayals, often from non-professional actors. The Dardenne brothers are known for hiring inexperienced actors in many of their films.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne speaks during a press conference held for the opening screening of ″Tori and Lokita″ at Jeonju Cine Complex in Jeonju, North Jeolla, on Thursday. [JIFF]

“I think the issue of migration and how people feel and behave toward migrants is a topic worth discussing universally,” Jean-Pierre said. “In Belgium, for example, I have read that a third of the population is positive towards migrants, a third pose a negative attitude and the other third feel that accepting migrants is necessary but that there should be governmental regulations on the matter. I wanted to relay the message through ‘Tori and Lokita’ that migrants are not our enemy, but also people who should be respected and treated as such.”

It is only through the youth of children that the true meaning of justice and truth can be realized in the world, the brothers believe, which led them to choose the little humans as the subject for their films.

“I think in the eyes of the youth and children, there are new perspectives, and how we can make our societies more just and truthful,” Luc said. “We wanted to talk about love, humanity and tolerance through these perspectives from children in our films.”

Having started their film career in the 1990s, the brothers have been building their reputation in the film industry for over three decades and have won accolades for their efforts. They deal with the fundamental questions of life in their films, which has kept them going, according to the auteurs. For instance, in "Rosetta" (1999), the film that garnered the duo the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the directors dealt with the philosophical questions of unemployment, receiving praise for being "the most visceral filmgoing experience" of the year by outlets such as the Chicago Reader. The 2005 film "The Child" also shed light on the moral issues of adoption and won the Dardennes another Palme d'Or that year.

Luc Dardenne speaks during a press conference held for the opening screening of ″Tori and Lokita″ at Jeonju Cine Complex in Jeonju, North Jeolla, on Thursday. [JIFF]

“We draw inspiration from many sources, and it always leads to the question of life,” Luc said. “And it comes down to us dealing with topics that engage us personally. Take ‘Tori and Lokita,’ for example — we had read about related cases in the Belgian press about migrant children, but we also had a conversation with people we had known for over 20 years, and that is where we drew additional inspiration.”

Casting the two leads in "Tori and Lokita," with Pablo Schils as Tori and Mbundu Joely as Lokita, who were both inexperienced newcomers when it came to acting, was a natural choice for the directors. Neither Schils nor Joley had past screen credits, but they were able to show the raw connection between two displaced children.

“We audition hundreds of actors, but with Pablo and Mbundu we saw an infinite potential in them,” Jean-Pierre said. “Some actors may have a lot of talent but cannot show that with the camera rolling. With Pablo and Mbundu, it was the opposite case — the camera loved them.”

The hardest part of the filmmaking process for the Dardenne brothers is the scriptwriting, according to the duo.

“The scriptwriting process is when the story of the film forms in earnest,” Luc said. “It is the hardest part of the whole process of making a single film. It takes more than half a year, up to eight months, and I cannot sleep well during the time I am writing a script.”

The Dardenne brothers also praised Korean directors for their artistry and singled out director Lee Chang-dong as someone who has a “similar texture in filmmaking” as themselves. Lee is a maestro and household name in Korea and abroad for films such as "Secret Sunshine" (2007), which won Jeon Do-yeon the Best Actress award at the 60th Cannes Film Festival, and "Burning" (2018), which became the first Korean film to make it to the final nine-film shortlist of the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

“I have watched all of Lee’s films and find them amazing,” Jean-Pierre said. “His stories, the rhythm of his films, all speak greatly to me. ‘Secret Sunshine’ and ‘Poetry’ are both great masterpieces by Lee.”

“I also like director Bong Joon-ho who made ‘Parasite,’" Luc said, "But I, like my brother, will have to pick director Lee as the top Korean director. Any genre that he touches, whether it be noir or suspenseful action, he changes to his own texture.”

Being welcomed so warmly by Korean fans and cinephiles in Jeonju was a pleasant surprise for the duo, the Dardenne brothers said.

“We hope to make films that have universal value, and that our films have spoken to those living halfway across the globe gives us a new experience,” Luc said. “I think all filmmakers aspire to reach so far. I hope to reach even more audiences through the 24th JIFF.”