Dardenne brothers: ‘We put people who are invisible at the heart of our story’

Belgian film-making siblings and social realists return with a tale of two underage Benin immigrants drawn into the criminal underworld

Aged 71 and 69, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made the 12th and most-admired film of their careers. Earlier this year, Tori and Lokita scooped a special 75th Cannes Anniversary honour. The Belgian brothers’ brand of impassioned social realism has, to date, won six major prizes at Cannes, winning two Palme d’Or while transporting the best-dressed audiences in the world to the grittiest locales.

One of their earliest features, directed by Armand Gatti, with Jean-Pierre as a first assistant cameraman and Luc as first assistant director and producer, was The Writing on the Wall, shot in Derry during the 1981 Hunger Strikes.

“We had some great friends there,” says Luc. “And we met people who went on to be involved in the peace process.”

Tori and Lokita concerns two underage Benin immigrants (Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu) who are posing as siblings so that they can take care of one another and to allow the older Lokita permission to stay in Belgium as a refugee. To survive and to send money back home, the kids are drawn into the criminal underworld. In order to pay off the traffickers who brought her to Europe, Lokita, who is already obliged to perform sex acts for her lowlife boss, is locked away in a remote and hidden cannabis farm. Tori, meanwhile, delivers drugs on his pizza route.


He is constantly on the move; his adopted sister, meanwhile, is repeatedly trapped while she attempts to look after him. It’s a contrast that allows the film to segue between social critique and crime thriller.

‘Small and nervous’

“We always saw Tori as small and nervous,” says Jean-Pierre. “He had to be small because of the actions that he does in the film and having to be able to weave in and out of situations and through tunnels. So we had two different bodies from the beginning as well as two different ages. And then, Lokita being a young woman as an adolescent, is more at risk from sexual predators and dangerous situations. The underworld is balanced out by Tori, who moves more in an adventure film with his energy. It’s as if things are not so dark, there’s always an exit, and there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. So when you see her in her room eating on her own, it’s sad, she’s got her phone with the picture of Tori but she’s alone. And as soon as when he manages to come into that space and they’re eating together, there’s a whole different energy and the joy of being together.”

For all the friendship and genre thrills, critics have alternately characterised Tori and Lokita as the Dardennes’ saddest and angriest film thus far.

“It is,” says Luc. “We are angry because too many young migrant minors disappear into underground criminal world’s network. It’s not normal because when you are legal subject in a democracy, you should be visible and they’re not. If they disappear, nobody’s going to come and identify the body and claim the person. So we choose to put people who are invisible at the heart of our story. And we did that in order for people to see them and talk about them.”

“For us, this really is the question, the big issue of the moment in Europe,” adds Jean-Pierre. “And it’s an issue that seems to govern decisions made by politicians. How they react, what they do, and what position they take are decided by what is at stake politically. But I’d say that for us, it’s really a very strong desire to bring individuals who are marginalised and to give them an existence through fiction.”

Since the late 1980s, the Dardennes have crafted documentary-style depictions of blue-collar workers – especially those impacted by the collapse of the coal industry in 1960s Wallonia – and the most disenfranchised members of Belgian society. Toki and Lokita offers an exciting variant of the Dardennes’ methodology – mostly handheld camera, natural, available light, unobtrusive cinematography and narrative – serving a personal crisis. As the brothers have noted many times, the poor cannot plan ahead, cannot make contingency plans, and are forced to react to whatever emergency comes their way. All of their feature films – including two Palme d’Or winners, Rosetta and L’Enfant – adhere to this nervy shape.

Street story

Touching on the same issues as Tori and Lokita, La Promesse centred on a young apprentice who watches his own father traffick and exploit undocumented workers. The Unknown Girl sees a doctor investigate the death of an unidentified African woman. Lorna’s Silence, which won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival – chronicled a young Albanian woman in a sham marriage to a drug addict. That film was inspired by a street story about addicts who had married for money and ended up dead.

Toki and Lokita, in keeping with the writer-director siblings’ preference for drawing from real-life sources, was inspired by a news report on a Cameroonian mother who was ordered to leave Belgian territory.

“She was being deported from Belgium,” says Jean-Luc. “Of her family, she was the first to leave the Belgian territory. Her kids had managed to escape and she told them; just go and say you are alone and they will be accepted and welcomed as unaccompanied minors. But whatever you do, stay together. If you separate, you will die. That idea of this unwavering friendship keeping kids together. That stayed with us. And then we read and we found out so much. There’s such a huge number of unaccompanied minors who disappear, no doubt in horrendous circumstances, and we don’t find them again.”

The brothers share filmmaking DNA with such titans of social realism as Vittorio De Sica and Ken Loach. They are equally influenced by the European philosophies of the French-Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas, especially his idea of the human face having an ethical meaning; in Lenivas’s words: “… as the irreducible presence of a mortal and vulnerable other with whom I am in a social relation, whether I like it or not”.

In this spirit, the Dardennes have been alarmed by a series of studies concerning solitude and related psychological experiences, such as social anxiety among immigrants and the children of immigrants. Recent psychological reports on displacement, PTSD, mental health and isolation, indicate a gulf between the legal and psychological or social views of unaccompanied minors.

Migrant children

“We actually read a lot in terms of research and in particular a French publication on childhood with articles by doctors and psychologists,” says Luc. “And we found out that there are very specific diseases, new western diseases, that were previously unknown to western medicine. And the main problems behind these conditions are solitude and loneliness. Because now, children are immigrating. Before it was only adults. Migrant children are a new phenomenon. That was why we wanted to take friendship and make that the leading thread through the film. This idea that solidarity is needed in order to survive.”

It is often reported that Rosetta, the Dardennes’s Cannes-winning look at underage workers, inspired Belgium’s “Rosetta Law”, legislation prohibiting employers from paying teen workers less than the minimum wage, alongside a raft of other labour reforms. The brothers have consistently – and modestly – played down their role in that law, noting that it already existed as a proposition, it just hadn’t been voted through.

Still, it’s impossible to think that their films haven’t made a difference. They themselves rightly regard their work as activism.

“In terms of campaigning, we hope that our films will reach the viewer and that will have some effect,” says Luc. “We are clearly in the campaigning mode because we are doing a denunciation of human slavery and human trafficking. In Europe, we need to give papers to these young people when they arrive, so they can be given a chance of schooling or apprenticeship that they need.”

Tori and Lokita opens December 2nd

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic