Publication on film policy, adaptations and national identity

The latest issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television has been published. It includes my article Film policy, national identity and period adaptations in Flanders during the 1970s and 1980s (read it here). This article builds further on a previous publication about the general history of government support for Flemish film adaptations of literary works since the mid-1960s until the early 2000s. The new article provides an in-depth examination of film support policy towards ‘period adaptations,’ or period films based on the Flemish literary patrimony, during the 1970s and 1980s. Examples of these often highly prestigious and popular films are:

  • Mira (1971, Fons Raedemakers), based on the work of Stijn Streuvels
  • Rolande met de Bles/Chronicle of a Passion (1972, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Herman Teirlinck
  • De Loteling/The Conscript (1973, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Hendrik Conscience
  • Pallieter (1975, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Felix Timmermans
  • Dood van een non/Death of a Nun (1975, Paul Collet & Pierre Drouot), based on the work of Maria Rosseels
  • De Witte van Sichem/Whitey from Sichem (1980, Robbe De Hert), based on the work of Ernest Claes
  • Brugge die Stille/Bruges-la-Morte (1981, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Georges Rodenbach
  • De Vlaschaard/The Flaxfield (1983, Jan Gruyaert), based on the work of Stijn Streuvels
  • De Leeuw van Vlaanderen/The Lion of Flanders (1984, Hugo Claus), based on the work of Hendrik Conscience
  • Het Gezin Van Paemel/The Van Paemel Family (1986, Paul Cammermans), based on the work of Cyriel Buysse
  • Boerenpsalm/Peasant Psalm (1989, Roland Verhavert), based on the work of Felix Timmermans
De Loteling/The Conscript (1973)

De Loteling/The Conscript (1973)

Through the use of hitherto unavailable archival documents and interviews, this article makes a revisionist contribution to Flemish and Belgian film history. It nuances the widespread argument that these adaptations were, due to their Flemish ideological potential, actively and straightforwardly stimulated and supported by Flemish film policy actors. Contrary to common assumptions, there was a difficult and very complex film support process behind the allocation of official support for period adaptation projects, involving a variety of actors with often conflicting interests and agencies. While the final decision-making power rested with the Minister of Culture, its advice organ, the film commission, was for the most part responsible for the shape of the pursued film policy. The film commission’s cultural and literary attitude, partly embedded in its members’ Flemish cultural emancipatory beliefs, regularly advanced government support for period adaptation projects. This literary attitude also had an impact on the adaptations’ attempted fidelity to the source work, which is but one illustration of the often far-reaching textual implications of a contextual factor such as film policy.

Until the early 1980s, the film commission’s underlying cultural pro-Flemishness was often accompanied by a critical and culturally more ‘progressive’ attitude, resulting in the rejection of romantic and folkloristic period adaptations. When examining why several of the projects that the film commission criticized as ‘folkloristic’ or ‘traditional’ eventually did receive government support, the impact of more external factors such as the perseverance and strategic skills of particular producers (e.g. Jan Van Raemdonck) and the involvement of the Flemish public broadcaster (both in the film commission and in particular film projects) should also be taken into account. At the same time, one should be aware that the film commission’s actions were always the result of a negotiation between the frequently inconsistent opinions of its different members. Moreover, throughout the examined period, the commission’s policy evolved, experiencing a particular change in the early 1980s, when the Liberals took over the Ministry of Culture after an uninterrupted period of Christian Democratic dominion over the ministry. Although the possible size of the audience had always played a considerable role in the attribution of support to period adaptation projects, the newly appointed film commission openly emphasized this commercial factor more strongly. At the same time, cultural motivations were preserved and were now connected more straightforwardly to a pro-Flemish attitude in the commission’s decision-making process.

The study shows how an official film support process can have an impact on the general shape of a film industry, the development of a particular film production and on the final film texts. The state, by means of its film policy, is an essential factor that should be taken into consideration when studying both individual film projects and groups of films, especially in regions where official film support is vital for the very existence of a film industry. Consistent with other recent analyses that emphasize the role of the state in shaping a particular film industry, this study shows that such an approach gives insight into and at the same time further complicates the relation between cinema and the national question.