On Tuesday, May 23rd, at 8pm, the Nippon Visions section of Nippon Connection 2017 officially began with a screening of the independent documentary La Terre abandonnée. This screening of the directorial debut of Belgian filmmaker Gilles Laurent was supposed to signal a new phase of his career, but instead served as a poignant epitaph to the life of the late artist; shortly before post-production on the film was completed, Gilles Laurent was tragically killed in the terrorist bombings in Brussels on March 22nd, 2016.
It was beautiful then, and eminently encouraging, seeing how full the theater was. The audience, filtering in slowly, featured the usual mix of chatter in German, English, and Japanese, but quite a bit of French was mixed in as well. A brief introduction by a speaker, the opening ads and a short film, and then the screening began.
Gilles Laurent started his film career rather late, first attending film school in his 30’s before traveling throughout Europe and South America. With origins in a small town in the south of Belgium, he was not automatically poised to live the life of a bohemian globetrotter. And yet, by opening his mind to the possibilities of exploration, that is precisely what he became. He eventually found himself drawn to Buddhism, mastered Taekwondo (a Korean martial art form), and by 2016 was living with his wife and two daughters in Tokyo when he returned to Brussels in March to view a near-final cut of the film.
After launching his film career, he mostly worked as a sound engineer, where he developed a reputation for working as if he could not just hear, but see the sounds he sought to utilize. “He not only had an ear but heard and looked at sounds like a Buddhist would,” said Tom Heene, a friend and fellow filmmaker.
This precise and careful attention to how sound could be altered, raised, lowered, manipulated, or let be as the scene demanded would become a hallmark of Laurent’s work, and is, of course, abundant throughout La Terre abandonnée. From beginning to end, the carefully-cultivated sounds of the abandoned worlds he depicts in the Fukushima disaster area fill the theater with a life of their own, providing a depth and weight to every scene that no music, no matter how lovingly crafted, could have hoped to match.
About halfway through the film, the director suddenly appeared on-screen, chatting for just a few minutes with a crewmember in German. It was his only on-camera appearance, and it was hard to avoid a small pang in the gut, realizing this would be his last-ever appearance, short as it was. A half-smile played on his face as he surveys the abandoned land around him, contemplating the greater implications of what happened for the people whose lives were forever altered by human error. Here, and in the rest of the film, he does not over-dramatize anything. He does not try to insert himself into these people’s daily lives.
According to collaborators and friends of his, this is entirely in keeping with his cinematic style. Described as a “stubborn visionary,” he had an instinctual understanding that, especially when it came to documentary work, not involving himself in the scenes he depicted would lend them far greater power than his face or voice could.
Given the subject matter of the documentary, ever-present themes of death, destruction, and loss were a given, but the fact that the film’s director has also left this world created parallels that are hard to miss. The people he finds are sure of their painful end, but are almost defiant in how cheerfully they insist on going about their daily lives, despite all the uncertainty and heartbreak they’ve endured. Though we will now never know for sure, I can well imagine that this was a key reason Gilles Laurent felt compelled to tell their stories.
Gilles Laurent was a unique and remarkable artistic talent taken from the world far, far too soon, but he lives on in his work, especially his remarkable first, and last, film as a director. Not that his movies are the only thing he would want us to recall him by; when asked, one friend said that, more than anything, Mr. Laurent would like to be remembered as “a good guy to have a beer with. A Belgian beer.”
As the film came to an end, and the credits began, the theater was filled with a meditative silence. Then, the credit for Gilles Laurent appeared, a block of white letters against a black screen, and a slow, grateful applause filled the theater.