The Dutch are very nice, up until the moment they get drunk. The Flemish are very nice, but only from the moment when they get drunk. Twelve years ago I decided to move from the Netherlands to Belgium to study in Ghent. After being tormented for two years by the sheer inaccessibility of the Flemish, I planned to exchange Ghent for Amsterdam. Three films prevented me at that time from acknowledging my defeat. The first one is Any Way the Wind Blows, which I mentioned in an earlier blog post. The other two were Steve + Sky and Dagen Zonder Lief by the Flemish movie director Felix van Groeningen.
Several things had struck me from that movies. For a long time, Holland had always been considered more liberal, more cultural, more progressive and more open than Belgium. The Flemish had therefore developed a love-hate relationship with the Dutch, which usually tipped towards hate. But at the beginning of the 2000s something changed. The Netherlands had currently seen the rise of Pim Fortuyn, while the Belgium were governed by very progressive and liberal governments. In the youth scenes of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels a new cultural generation developed, which was self-conscious, ironic and romantic at the same time. It was a culture which could define itself on its own, without feeling the necessity to compare what was happening in the Netherlands.
In music, we could witness the rise of bands like Soulwax, dEUS and Das Pop. In film you first had the still very ironic Iedereen beroemd! but then there were the aforementioned films. Most striking to me personally must have been Dagen Zonder Lief. For me, it was as if everything I always failed to grasp about the Flemish became suddenly perfectly clear.
The film features a young woman, who returns back to her hometown Sint Niklaas after she had left for the United States, only to find her former social life in scatters. Although the value of friendship is an important theme in the film, it also evokes a much deeper sense of nostalgia, a deep sense that the past is irreversibly lost and that the only thing which remain from the past are hurt and regret. For me, this movie instantaneously excited in me the desire to be Flemish myself. Had I been born in the wrong body? Suddenly it all made so much more sense, the Sorrow of Belgium as Hugo Claus had famously put it, and which could only be cured by Herman Brusselmans assertion: Mijn haar is lang (My hair is long).
Two years ago I finally left Belgium, over six years after I originally anticipated to leave and eight years after my first major Belgium-breakdown. I could finally go in recovery from the disease which is called Flanders. Yesterday I accidentally ran into a group of actors from Belgium, in Amsterdam. I learned that their company was seated in Sint-Niklaas – the infamous background of Dagen Zonder Lief and the town where I had taught ethics in a local high school during the last two years of my stay in the country. While we were discussing the poor state of the theatre scene in Sint-Niklaas, I learned to my great surprise and some embarrassment that I was talking with almost half of the cast of that precious movie. Reality had overtook me and the image I carefully crafted in my mind of the life in Flemish towns of early twenty somethings at the end of the 90s suddenly collapsed. Finally, while Belgium is currently being consumed by the N-VA, I can proudly say I am completely cured.