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The Brick House, a film by Eliane Bots

I met Eliane Bots (1986, NL) around the time I was studying at the University of the Arts in Utrecht, almost eight years ago. I was struck by her interest in the fact that I was a Romanian, who relocated to the Netherlands in order to study. Her curiosity and inquisitive character intrigued me and we sat and spent hours talking about my family, the city where I grew up, and the reasons that made me leave my country. We became friends. My first contact with her work was series of interviews she shot in Moldova. She studied Russian language, but she needed my help in translating the interviews spoken in Romanian. By translating and sharing my language with her, we had established a common ground and we became close, all without speaking to each other in our native languages. According to Bots, language creates intimacy and, at the same time, distance.

Since then, her career has developed extensively and her films have been screened at festivals such as International short film festival Oberhausen (DE), International short film festival Curta Cinema, Rio de Janeiro (BR), Flatpack Film festival, Birmingham (UK) and Kassel Dokfest (DE). In 2013 she won the BNG Bank Workspace competition for experimental film of Filmhuis The Hague, for the production of the film-installation The Visionary. The installation has since been exhibited throughout The Netherlands. In 2014 she received a production residency at the POLIN Museum Warsaw (PL), where she produced the film We can’t come from nothing.

The film The Brick House (2016) investigates the concept of feeling at home and the impossibility of completely experiencing this when you relocate to another country. The filmmaker states that she is looking for ways to “visualize the feelings of not belonging, of residing somewhere you might not yet completely feel at home, where you feel you cannot relate to the outside world. That there are unbreakable links to your native home, the place of your family. These things cannot be told, but should be shown”. What is home? Two friends are reenacting their childhood and family stories, sharing them with us through the eyes of camera. Bots talks about the concept of intimacy – something she is currently researching, alongside family stories and the fascination of entering the private space of her characters. Yet, what is intimacy and how do we share it? Is it something that makes us vulnerable as humans, and if so why would we expose ourselves? Coming from another culture into the Dutch one, I am familiar with a shift in the manner with which people deal with the notion of intimacy and the difficulties that  arise when one has to explain something so familiar and so close, while completely unknown to the other person.

Bots’ characters are placed and registered in the Dutch culture, yet, their descent is very clear. The viewer assumes that their lives exist in their natural habitat, yet just like all of us, they are just looking for a place to call home. By filming and following them in places familiar to them (Hija’s own apartment is the film set), Bots is looking to revive their past, re-tell their stories and ‘re-puzzle’ a place called home. The outside corners of this puzzle belong to the new culture (in this instance the Dutch culture), whereas the ‘rebuilding’ begins at the edges, slowly visualizing the inner core. She is showing us the ‘original picture’ by giving her characters absolute freedom in narrating their past. This is a compelling technique of visualizing something so complex as memory, or maybe, a  collection of memories. According to Hija: “Swahili is the language of my mother and Dutch is the language of my survival”. The presence of a different language – Sapa and Hija speak Swahili together, a language Bots does not understand, makes her an outsider – yet translated in the form of subtitles, adds another level of the “intimacy between the film and the viewer”, adds the filmmaker.

Sapa and Hija are given another chance in their new context. Fabricating a sphere as complex as ‘home’, asks a lot of commitment and research. Bots’ film operates at a socio-cultural level. She fabricates a décor for Sapa and Hija not with props but with human emotions, resulting in a very sensorial experience. The viewer’s perception makes space for human interactions and reveals a sense of closeness or intimacy. This concept in turn has the potential to revive confidence: in yourself and in the other. However, intimacy means closeness at a moment when distance seeks to be directly perceived: the viewer gets to understand this story only through the camera lens, music, voices, dialogues and picture framing. The mix between the sounds of the ‘house’ and the outside noises (wind, traffic, birds) creates a sense of freedom (and perhaps also a sense of disconnection, because the characters do not connect to this outside world in the film). The humans are there to tame nature, sharing their most inner feelings, in this attempt to almost domesticate the white walls.

The Brick House revolves around short anecdotes, ritualistic actions, and nostalgic family events. Moreover, these elements function with a great degree of refinement and discretion. The closeness is matched by distance and loss. While looking outside through the window, temporarily leaving the space of the house, yet returning to it with the means of narration, the viewer comes closer and closer to Sapa and Hija. The spirits of their ancestors are present and are guiding them through their new lives. They don’t live in a brick house, they can open the windows and listen to the outside world, and they can lock their front door. But they are still looking for a new home.

The film was screened in Amsterdam in De Balie in the program Stories we tell, a program curated by Manon Bovenkerk; in Utrecht on the at the Nederlands Film Festival in Utrecht, and in EYE Filmmuseum (Amsterdam) in a program with other short experimental films as part of Eye on Art. The Brick House also traveled outside Europe to the 55th New York Film Festival in the USA in the documentary shorts section, and in Brazil, The Brick House was screened at the international competition at Festcurtas Belo Horizonte Film Festival.

You can view the trailer to The Brick House (2016) here.
Image courtesy of the artist.