Cannes 2022: The Dardenne Brothers on their latest film, Tori & Lokita
One of the few surprises this edition of Cannes offered me was Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne latest movie – Tori & Lokita, and the chance to meet them. The film highlights the immigration issues caused by the Belgian law, a theme largely disputed in the two brothers films, and it tells the story of Tori & Lokita – two children of about 12 and 16 years old who arrive in Europe from Africa and pretend to be brother and sister, in order for Lokita to receive her official papers and remain in the country with Tori. Lokita is the eldest, so she’s responsible for keeping Tori in school and earning some money. She has to pay the couple who helped them get to Belgium and send money back home to her mother, so she can send her brother to school. She sings in a bar with Tori and delivers drugs for a mischievous chef who runs his business from the basement of an Italian restaurant. Even though Tori & Lokita are not real brother and sister, their devotion and love for one another are indestructible – and probably the most heart-warming aspect of the film. Otherwise it is the most cruel and explicit movie the Dardenne’s have made so far – and we’re talking about two directors who’ve always settled with little when judging the Belgium social system. Now they seem angrier than ever and have you keep your breath until the end – which is not a happy end.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne answered the questions of 8 journalists from different corners of the world during a roundtable organized at Cannes. This was, for me, the first event of its kind.
It is well known your interest in immigration issues, this is your 4th film on this topic, however it seems to be the most accurate and well researched. How did you explore the subject?
Jean-Pierre: We carried out our research on many leads – MENA, which in Belgium stands for unaccompanied migrant minors; we went to some centers for MENA children over 10 years ago – because this is an old issue in Belgium, and we came back now to meet with the manager and the tutors who work here in order to get familiar with the way this kids live and what they feel. Not long after this, we read a very important analysis by a French magazine, a journal on childhood and adolescence that addressed the issue of unaccompanied minor immigrants; it had interviews with psychiatrists which were saying that the disease that most of these children suffer from is solitude.
Another thing that struck me is the accuracy of the cannabis underworld. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to do your research and investigate this matter.
Jean-Pierre: We have a friend who is responsible for the anti-drug police department in Liege that helped us, providing photographs of that environment, in order for us to replicate exactly the way it looks – the locations, how are the plants displayed, the lamps, air-conditioning, all these details that were essential for us.
He also told us that most of the cannabis used in Belgium for illegal trafficking comes from Holland, the neighboring country that has legalized it – the dutch side of Belgium does all the operations and they’re well-connected with the Albanian Mafia. Apparently, the so-called gardeners are often immigrant children who fear they might be deported to their country of origin and they’re being hired by the mafia.
Why is the theme of immigration so important to you?
Luc: Well, we thought our politicians were trying to convince us that the invasion of the immigrants was just a temporary issue, but that was not the case. It’s quite legitimate for these people to see Europe as a better place than the countries they live in and decide to leave. Building walls and closing our frontiers is not the way to solve the problem, there has to be a better solution. Because of this law that implies they should have all their documents in order by the time they reach 18 years old and those who do not have them risk to be deported – when they get to the age of 16 or 18 and they don’t receive their papers, they decide to give up studying and enter the underworld because it’s a way to remain in the country and survive. But they become the criminals of tomorrow. This law should be abolished and we should offer the right to study to all the children that come to Europe, to help them train, find a job, or learn the language. And then we would probably be able to solve other problems.
Jean-Pierre: Last year, in a city of France a baker who had an Afghan assistant that was turning 18 and had to be deported, went on a hunger strike in order to prevent this from happening. The whole community joined him and the kid ended up staying. The support of the people, despite the fear that the politicians are trying to instill in all of us, gave us hope for the future. That’s the goal for us, In the case of the story we are telling in this film, because we are talking about the most fragile human beings – the children, which are being exploited the most.
The two actors that play Tori and Lokita are unprofessional actors, yet they give extraordinary performances. I’m curious how you chose them and what were the key aspects you followed when working with them?
We went through a casting call, of course. We had an open audition and looked at hundreds of photographs before choosing who we wanted to meet. In the case of Mbundu and Pablo, we were in the kind of situation we had never experienced before – usually when you work with unprofessional actors they are trained by an adult actor the children can rely on but it wasn’t the case with Pablo and Mbundu – they had one another. It was difficult for us but we were very keen on trying, so we rehearsed for one and a half months and we had to explain everything – what they should do in terms of movement and behavior. However, very carefully so they wouldn’t copy us but gain trust in ourselves and confidence in themselves. In the case of Tori, who became very wild and active, it was important to explain to him that acting is not just a game, but real work and we have to work every day. It was a huge challenge for everyone involved.
And last but not least, what was the most important thing you wanted to convey through this film?
That it’s a story of friendship between two children that are exiled, fragile, underaged and completely unprotected. Their friendship allows them to survive and they need the fictional story they come up with in order to survive. We wanted their friendship to live and not crumble. We had to maintain a thin line between believing that the friendship will win and understanding that we shouldn’t be too candid. It was crucial to maintain the tension.
Before leaving the roundtable event, Jean-Pierre and Luc agreed to take a photo with me, that I would print and keep it until the next time we will meet and they will have it signed for me. We briefly talked about Romania, „the country of Cristian Mungiu” and said goodbye. They remained for the second and last round of interviews, while I left with the feeling they complement each other in lovely ways. Jean-Pierre is more joyous, while Luc is a bit more grumpy. They speak about their work and films with a lot of passion and oftentimes finish each other’s sentences.
A few days later, when the awards of the 75th edition of Festival de Cannes were announced, I found out Tori & Lokita won the Anniversary Award.
The film will be distributed in Romanian cinemas this fall by Independența Film.
Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the interview of the month. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.
Tori & Lokita
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Pablo Schils, Mbundu Joely
In Belgium today, a young boy and an adolescent girl who have travelled alone from Africa pit their invincible friendship against the cruel conditions of their exile.