Theater of Cruelty

Molenbeek seen through children's eyes

Gods of Molenbeek
Regissør: Reetta Huhtanen
(Finland, Belgia, Tyskland)

CHILD FAITH / Gods of Molenbeek is a very good example of how to introduce all kinds of thoughts about God, gods and eternity to a young audience.


If you have been to Molenbeek, a modest and multicultural district in Brussels, you know that it is populated by people who have their roots all over the world. The large and visible Muslim population is not uniform, but very many Moroccan families migrated to Belgium in the mid-1900 century, when the country recruited labor for mining and industry. Neighbors and friendships allow people of different faiths and ethnicities to live together peacefully.

Finnish director Reetta Huhtanen follows two boys and sometimes a girl who grows up in this district. They are all around six years old, discover different ways of thinking about God (s), and ponder the cosmos and what happens after death.

From the children's point of view

Aatos and Amine are deep thinkers, awake and curious. The boys live in the same house and paddle around in the backyard, they never seem to be at ease and scraping away. Although they are neighbors, they have a completely different background. Aatos is Finnish-Chilean, he speaks French, Finnish and Spanish and attends a rockery school; Amine comes from a strictly Muslim Moroccan family, probably attends a public school, and we see him in the classroom teaching Arabic (it is not uncommon in Brussels that Arabic is an elective in public schools).

So how does childhood develop for children growing up in a densely populated, multicultural neighborhood, which has been defined by the press as a center of jihadist activity? The director responds by keeping his point of view as close to the boys as possible.

Filming children can be tricky, especially very young people; the power lies entirely with the filmmakers. Gods of Molenbeek is a school example of how to film children with respect: The children are allowed to express themselves, the camera does not linger at unpleasant moments – the camera lens is not an unreasonable snuff – and it is usually placed slightly below the children's heads, where the lens is often turned upwards. The boys sparkle together. French is their common language, but they share neither religion nor mythologies.

From peace to rebellion

In Molenbeek you can have life in the middle of the meat. The sidewalks, as in the rest of the city, are cramped and uneven, but the crowd density is typical of poor neighborhoods; there is little green in the streets, but in the narrow backyards and in the courtyards shared by many homes, it is buzzing with life. Arabic is hardly heard in many of the film's outdoor scenes, which stood from children playing a block of flats away.

At the same time, the boys alternate between different languages, sometimes with a parent who teaches them about their religion, or when they play a Nordic god; Aatos' other friend, a girl who does not believe in God at all, chooses instead to call it all Nature. This is how Molenbeek is experienced from day to day in this film, from the children's perspective, as an accepting place where no one seems to be just one thing.

Gods of Molenbeek is a school example of how to film
children with respect.

That's the big story in this movie. There are hardly any conflicts - only discoveries – and we are carried from scene to scene by the charm of children's personalities. Then comes the drama that characterizes the year: A wave of bombs that left many dead and injured has hit Paris and Brussels. Several military vehicles patrol the streets, an armed soldier or rebel policeman checks a school robbery; a news broadcast on the radio explains the situation. It seems a perpetrator is from the area or has been hiding here. How big is this network?

Authentic, free play

But it is after all Brussels, and a whole neighborhood that is negatively referred to: People who live in Molenbeek, all kinds of people, demonstrate to defend their district. Especially Muslims join their neighbors in front of the cameras, side by side, against "terrorism". But the movie does not extend this trauma to adult size: Gods of Molenbeek relates to this in the same way the boys seem to do it. The demonstrations come and go, and eventually they are not really directly affected by them, although the radio continues to send news updates that add mildly to the environmental sound. Here, the director and editor has done a fine adjustment job.

One can feel the director's hand in this movie, perhaps as the facilitator of the topics the boys take up (lots of God), maybe it controls how and with whom they play (off to the woods; out to buy fabric for Poseidon's cloak; together to the mosque). But the friendships are perceived as authentic, the conversations between the boys as natural, as if this is an agreement to play with the film team where the camera is taken for granted and soon to be overlooked. It is much harder to get to this than it seems!

The movie was shown on
Oslo Pix in June.
Velin is a Canadian director and journalist.

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