October 19, 2022
Lead ImageHeartlands, 2022(Film still)
“Youth is the most intense time you can experience, physically but also psychologically,” says Willy Vanderperre. “In fact, you really believe that no one in the world understands you. For more than 30 years, the Belgian photographer – who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and spawned an instantly recognizable, chalky, almost divine aesthetic with his frequent collaborators Raf Simons and Olivier Rizzo – has been obsessed with youth and all its trappings. . Today, his very first feature film, Heartlandstakes this obsession even further.
Set in the quiet Belgian region of Flanders – where Vanderperre himself grew up – the film centers on five teenagers as they transition into adulthood in disarray; scenes include actors dancing, drinking and taking drugs, masturbating in the cold glow of their computer screens, and bullying or even assaulting each other. Heartlands is driven more by sentiment than narrative and has a distinctly arthouse sensibility. “I think it was my experimental film,” he says mischievously on Zoom from his studio in Antwerp.
6Heartlands by Willy Vanderperre
For all the growing pains – both literal and metaphorical – of adolescence, Heartlands above all seems to be about friendship and the joy of fully living the present moment. “We tend to forget it, but if we look back at that time, it’s quite romantic and even endearing,” he says.
Here, Vandeperre talks about his new experimental film, why all art is autobiographical, and the eternal struggle to capture youth on camera.
Violet Conroy: How did you come up with the idea for this film?
Willy Vanderperre: It is, I think, an ode to youth; perhaps a radical ode to that. Youth is so fleeting and so transient and so short. At first, it’s them in their natural setting. As a teenager, the place where you spend the most time is your bedroom because it is your refuge. It’s a place where you can be alone with your twisted thoughts and feelings that you can’t really express, because you know no one else in the world will understand. If you look back at that time, it’s quite romantic and even endearing – but we tend to forget that as soon as we’re in that zone.
“Youth is a state of mind. And it’s also the most intense time you can have, physically but also psychologically” – Willy Vanderperre
With the second part, we entered [the stage where the characters have] developed more, but still haven’t found their voice. There’s a rave and an after party, but it’s a nightmare. You still can’t express yourself, so maybe you’re lost in delirium or whatever. But there is this search to show your true self, your identity that you are trying to create for yourself.
Heartlands, 2022 (movie still)
And then in the final part, the dinner scene – that’s where you actually have a voice, but the voice is kind of fabricated by the people who were your friends at the time. Maybe you take a piece of intellect from someone you love and just start reading books. You created this character from this influx of information that you gathered, which is an illusion.
And then we’re done with the grotesque only because you’re almost alienated from that person you were in your room when you were 15. [Since then, you’ve] been loved, corrupted, accepted, rejected. You become that person you say is the real you, when we all know we have different personalities; the one we represent to the rest of the world, and the one we keep to ourselves when we are deprived at home.
VC: I read that this film was inspired by your own upbringing in the Bible Belt in the Netherlands.
WP: Yes, in Belgium you have different sections, which are kind of religious, and I grew up in a religious place so we went to church on Sundays. Everything we do – whatever means we use to express ourselves and to get rid of the demons we have within – everything has its core in autobiography. Every character in this movie has a part of me, but it’s a fictional story.
VC: Does the film medium offer a better way to be autobiographical than your photographs?
WP: Well, maybe in a way. If you took the entire duration of the work that I did, and had to glue them all together, they would all be semi-autobiographical. They may tell you the story of my life, each period that I have gone through. There was a time when I was taking dark photos, for example. You evolve as a photographer, while the film is much more condensed – you tell the story in 1h11. The expression is more direct.
Heartlands, 2022 (movie still)
VC: What prompted you to start making films?
WP: I always wanted to go beyond still imagery. It’s just a different approach to imagery, it’s a different approach to how to tell a story, it’s a different approach to how to express yourself.
VC: What are your biggest cinematic influences?
WP: I don’t have a cult director, I don’t have a cult photographer, I don’t have a cult thing. I am interested in the [whole] field so I see a lot of them, from small films to big blockbusters. Bringing in all of these influences creates this world for you, and then you try to create your own world. Of course I like the hunter’s night, which is still a stylistic benchmark for me because it was such a cutting-edge film. Of course I like Gus Van Sant and of course I like Larry Clark because they’re obsessed with youth, but I don’t think it would be fair for me to say that those are my main inspirations, because I would leave out so many other people who have inspired me.
“I don’t have a cult director, I don’t have a cult photographer, I don’t have a cult anything” – Willy Vanderperre
VC: Can you tell me about your fascination with youth? In the past, I know you’ve said it’s more of a state of mind than a physical state.
WP: Youth is a state of mind. And it is also the most intense period one can have, physically but also psychologically. In fact, you truly believe that no one in the world understands you. Even though you share, you still feel that you are not fully understood. And maybe we go through life with all these questions, but they peak at this time because you’re still trying to figure out who you are. As soon as you enter high school, you go through a lot and your brain develops more. There is something about this time that is so intense, and you will remember it for the rest of your life.
And like I said, it’s such a short time in someone’s life. And I think that’s why it’s so intriguing because it’s so hard to capture. So we can only try to do it, whether it’s with an image or what we tried to do with the film.
Heartlands, 2022 (movie still)
VC: One of the main messages of the film seems to be the importance of friendship and living in the moment. Do you think people have kind of forgotten how to be present these days, because of technology?
WP: Maybe he’s coming back – I don’t think we’ve lost him. What has completely changed is the absurd amounts of information we receive on a daily basis. For us, it’s obviously difficult to manage, but for today’s young people, it must be more difficult to manage because there are so many inputs.
I’m glad you said that, because the film is about love, but I tried not to give a sentimental version of it. There’s not really a love scene in it, but it’s all about friendship and how friends in difficult situations survive and grow. Yes, there is tactility, yes, there is violence, yes, there is misunderstanding and there is acceptance, there are goodbyes. So yeah, we tried to improve those things that we kind of lost because of [things like] take a selfie of each other when you’re at the table.
VC: Tell me a bit about your work with Olivier Rizzo on the styling of the film.
WP: Olivier is still part of it. I was already building the character a lot through the clothes, and with this project he was more of a fine tuner because I knew exactly what these kids were going to be wearing from head to toe. So it’s always a conversation with Olivier, he’s an integral part of my life.
VC: Do you plan to make more films in the future?
WP: Oh yes, of course. [Laughs.]. I think it was my experimental film. That’s why we’re hosting the off-grid world premiere – it’s around the same time as the Ghent Film Festival. I think a film can be an experience, rather than [when] you must be completely led in a story from A to Z. We try to leave it open to interpretation. We’re currently working on our next one, which is in prefunded status, as people call it now. But it was my first vision of what I think a movie could be.
Heartlands will premiere at the Sphinx Cinema in Ghent, Belgium on October 20. To buy tickets here.