Ghost Tropic (Belguim-Netherlands, 2019) – LIFF1

Living By Night

My first screening at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be a treat. At festivals I tend to choose films that fit with the time I have available rather than choosing specific titles. Whilst this is not necessarily the best way to select viewings, if I had read the synopsis about this film (‘the gentle nocturnal odyssey of a cleaning lady through the streets of Brussels’) I might have demurred. In the event the film was a riveting journey that inverted the usual representation of the night as a place of threat.

Saadia Bentaïeb plays Khadija beautifully, the cleaning woman who falls asleep on the last metro and hasn’t the money to get a taxi home so has to walk. The picaresque narrative allows us to meet some denizens of the dark who are, of course, ordinary people. Writer-director Bas Devos chooses not to laden these encounters with significance, though it’s not without social comment. The image above of the tropical island is an advert that tells Khadija to ‘get lost’; it’s a brilliant double entendre for we can assume that she could never afford to visit such a place on holiday.

Cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove manages to make the dark city streets look fascinating; out of focus coloured lights (for example, cars’ brake lights) give an abstract beauty and Devos’ framing is often quite brilliant. In the metro, for example, Khadija seems to be in a small window on a wall and then the train enters the station and we understand our position in relation to her. It’s a way defamiliarising the night, just as its representation of the dark defies expectations. It’s shot on 16mm and, unsurprisingly given the light levels, is very grainy which works perfectly well except occasionally it appears to be pouring with rain such is the grain.

I was confused by a couple of things. Near the start Khadija’s at a jovial meeting where Congo is mentioned; suggesting the tropics and I wasn’t clear what was going on. And at the end, there’s a (presumably) fantasy sequence on a tropical beach, like the one in the ad: is it her younger self we see or her daughter, who she encounters on her journey home, in the future? On the soundtrack we occasionally hear (the sound design is quite brilliant – Boris Debackere) tropical birds and there is a ‘magic realist’ moment concerning a dog. My uncertainty about these scenes certainly didn’t detract from the film and ensured we understood Devos’ intention wasn’t as a documentarian.

Incidentally the film had the best credits at the end: a blank black screen, apart from ‘A film by’ in the top left hand corner, is then filled with names with gaps in between them. The gaps are then populated, one at a time, with the role the person took. Yes, a film is made by everyone involved.

Credit where it is due