REVIEW: “Art is for the Peasant”: The Diaries of Luc Dardenne

Courtesy of  Featherproof Books

Courtesy of Featherproof Books

Sometime in 2014, I was a depressive undergraduate in Cincinnati seeking any way to procrastinate. I lived a short walk away from the Esquire Theatre near the university — the only theatre in the city that shows independent, international, or art-house films. I’d never heard the name Dardenne before, but I knew Marion Cotillard and I found myself in a row by myself seeing a film called Two Days, One Night. 

Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who is just returning from a medical leave after an implied suicide attempt. She finds that her coworkers have all opted to each receive a bonus in lieu of her employment at the factory. She has one weekend to convince her coworkers to vote to give up their bonuses in favor of her keeping her job the following Monday morning. I didn’t know I was about to see 95 minutes of some the most subtle progressions of dread and suspense pulled from simple, banal conversation.  The film ends with Sandra ultimately gaining a majority vote, only for her boss to swap her predicament with another employee — an African immigrant who sided with Sandra from the beginning. Sandra quits so her friend may keep his job and walks out of the factory along the sidewalk of the industrial park with only the sound of cars passing by. Her fate did not change, but she walks out of frame with a dignity she ‘d never known. She had hope. 

As the credits rolled my gut was churning. I noticed an older man sitting a few rows ahead of me exhaustively throw his arms up, annoyed. I still don’t know why.

I only recently reengaged with the Dardenne Brothers’ films after receiving a copy of On the Back of Our Images, the collected diaries of Luc Dardenne — one half of the Belgian film-duo with his older brother, Jean-Pierre.

Chicago small press darlings Featherproof Books gained the U.S. rights to translate Luc’s diaries and include three of the brothers’ early screenplays, translated for the first time in English by Featherproof’s own Sammi Skolmoski. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have been making films since the late 70’s, but it wasn’t until the release of 1996’s La Promesse (The Promise) that the auteurs gained international recognition, with multiple wins at Cannes to follow. The diaries collected in the book range from 1991 to 2005, nearly a decade before the writing of Two Days, One Night commences, but the treatment of the horrors of bureaucracy and discrete class violence is just as potent in the brothers’ early work. Originally published in the brothers’ native French by Editions du Seuil in 2005, Featherproof’s edition of Luc’s diaries was translated by Jeffery Zuckerman.

Skolmoski translated the screenplays as closely to the literal English equivalent of the Dardennes’ native French, citing the brothers’ “unique style, verbiage, and explorations of time and scene through expansions and contractions of language.” Reading that sentence sent me back to that dark theatre and the relentless back and forth of Sandra’s pleading against every fiber of her wanting to give up. To die. This same undulation reflects Luc’s diaries, which move in and out of his own struggles to contextualize he and his brother’s films against the pressures of industry aesthetics, social import, and his generally ubiquitous, all-consuming self-doubt. Truly, you don’t need to have seen a second of the Dardennes’ films for the dissonance to be cutting. The entries in the book serve as a monograph for the creative person in search of contextual grounding for their own work and life.

As inherently amorphous as a diary is, the entries collected in the book lead the reader through a kaleidoscope of creative confrontations, as Dardenne tempers his influences, engages his political moment against his art, and allows readers into the most intimate elements of the filmmaker’s life. And through this intimacy, the reader is left with a heightened respect for and consideration of Dardenne’s films, aware now of the deft eye that produced some of the most humane depictions of institutional class violence shown on screen.

The singular blurb on the front cover comes from Martin Scorsese, who describes the brothers as “truly spiritual artists.” I agree. Luc’s diaries often read like frantic grasping toward an elusive “pure image.” He often writes of his desire for his characters to be free of any ethical or moral imposition by the nexus of their very creation. It’s as if every moral fable rendered begins in the minutiae of a character’s world — the sound of traffic on a daily commute, the price of a bicycle, the promise of a relief more lasting than a cigarette break. Luc frequently inserts quotations from poets, philosophers, and artists alike as a means to coagulate the struggles of his characters. Invoking Rimbaud, who writes, “I who called myself angel or seer, exempt from all morality, I am returned to the soil, with a duty to seek and rough reality to embrace,” Luc asserts that “Art is for the peasant.” Of the protagonist from La Promesse, Dardenne writes, “I hope young Igor’s moral trajectory escapes from the screenplay.” Given this epiphany, Luc’s diaries — and Dardenne’s filmography at large — thread themselves into an unexpected cohesion, portraying the struggle to maintain a grasp of what the observer takes for granted within an image.

The Dardennes’ film depict life as it is: far more fluid than any attempt at its representation. And Luc’s diaries combine to show the very profession of filmmaking as a necessary act of futility; grasping at something unmoored through a means that is directly derived through aesthetic and political intention. The book ultimately frames the cohabitation of the act of keeping a diary with the ambition of he and his brother’s films: the continual need to grasp something sacred within the tyranny of everyday life. A futile act fueled by hope alone.

I think back to the man throwing his arms up in that dark theater and wonder if he was exhausted by the nihilism of Sanrda’s world. I wonder if he was exhausted by her refusal to be consumed by it.

An Interview With Filmmaker/Writer Brielle Brilliant


Thirty minutes into interviewing Brielle Brilliant, I confessed to her a dream I had, involving me and my high school friends dying in an elevator shaft. I can still remember the sensation of my body and the shaft hitting cement: black infinite space of an unsatisfying afterlife. “Is terror related to beauty?” Brielle had asked me. We spent most of her interview questioning concepts such as these; how they related to her new work The Spud, what it means in the realm of sight and fear and so on.

Brilliant’s company felt safe and mystical. Her book The Spud more so; a narrative through memory, excerpts of violence and ambition through prose. I wanted to know Brielle’s process as a writer, less the context of the work as reader. But as our talk reached its third hour, I was beginning to understand the enticement of reading a work without any backscene knowledge. That's what's so honest about a book: you are asked to only read and reflect. To talk to an author is a privilege, and the discussion with Brielle is one I am honored to have had.   

Is The Spud your first book?

No, but it’s my first published narrative. I have a book of poems called The Curtsy Family (Thoughtcrime Press). This one (The Spud) is more of an approach to narrative. A sense of nausea, maybe.

Aside from writing, you are also a filmmaker. I could feel a cinematic essence to this text. The chapters feel like scenes from a script. Was that your intention? What was the process?

It’s tricky…(laughing)...I’m hesitant to explain the whys of structures. Dialogue is verse. Like, talking can feel like poetry sometimes, you know? That’s part of the book’s world. So there are spaces and scenes around those moments. And in terms of film, yeah, it’s movement-images. When I write or live or film, there are multiple realities happening, moving. They’re all true, all present. The character’s experiences are real.

Call me a seven-year old, but I wanted to write a book for someone who wanted to kill people, but then have them read this and be like: “Nevermind. I think I’ll just go to the gas station instead.”  It probably sounds dumb and naive, but like, what would you say to someone to not make them kill? Especially if they already have a strong rhetoric, they’re not gonna be moved if you just say, “Don’t do that, it’s wrong.” So do you use logic or emotion or what? If I had that person in my car, what do I say? That’s what I was thinking. If there’s anything you could say that would actually change their mind.

Tell me about your cassette tape. Is it related to the book? And why a tape?

Cause tape, like tape, tape, film, reels, an object in time. The first time I touched an 8mm reel, it was under a magnifying glass. I became so obsessed with splices and spools and the image of that in your brain or eye, like how the fuck does this plus this make images and sounds?? Plus I shoot on mini DV tapes now, so. I don’t know, it’s the same thing with words. Knowing is a process in time and it feels special to give that physical. On it are calls and deliveries. On Side A are calls I made to a bunch of gun shops, mostly in Idaho. Side B are calls I had made to Staples employees and stuff like that.

Why did you call Staples?

To ask what kind of deliveries they make.

Why call Idaho?

Well, The Spud, it’s in Idaho. And I lived there-

Oh, you lived in Idaho?

Yeah. For a bit. But it’s funny, no one knows what it is. When you say Idaho, “I don’t know” comes out. “Idahno...” (laughing)  It’s a geographic mystery. You ask someone to point out where Idaho is on the map and they don’t know. It feels very American in that way.

When/why did you live there?

To go on an Information Fast, a few years ago.

These characters of yours live there. They are all so dynamic. I was especially interested in the girl, JD, and her moments in high school, that part with the track. She really pulls.

Yeah, cause she’s fueling with all the movies she’s watched! Pretty awful movies. Memories that repeat. So the decision to turn is huge. It can be really hard to get the tools you need for that, could take your whole fucking life. Like, with your elevator. What kinda thing do you need to bring into that elevator to affect your dream, you know? So you can go into elevators again and not be scared. Maybe you need to bring a machete or something? A song. And in the car ride, what does KP need. I just mean what can a person do to not be in a cycle anymore. Like, what could you give someone to help them get out of certain image cycles. They might not even know they’re in them. It’s not necessarily logical. It’s mysterious and complicated, but. The methods come easier for me when I’m present.

I was just thinking about that on the way here...JD, I mean. When you're sixteen, you have these obsessions. You haven’t discovered yourself yet, so you have these fixations that can seem a little unbalanced. But I don’t want to tell a sixteen year old, who has no idea who they are yet, that their dreams are wrong, you know?

There’s so much momentum in the failing of dreams. It’s hard to see that sometimes because we get attached to certain images of thought. Perfectionism can be really dangerous, paralyzing. So many people fear their dreams will fail so they keep these beautiful pristine images in their mind and don’t act on them cause they’re scared it won’t come out that way. I’ve definitely been there --so in love with the thought-image that you hoard it in your mind, but once those thought-images start breaking, other images come, and the world keeps building. It builds way past your images. It’s just an illusion that’s there is nothing else and you “broke” The Only One and now you have to die because everything’s gone and you suck. It’s a mean endurance some of us force on ourselves. But breaking is actually really exciting, cause it loosens things. I dunno. Pray in mistakism. I just try to live my life hoping I can be brave and curious. That’s all I can do, be present like that.

Being present can seem obvious but then you realize “Wow. I’ve been on my phone for thirty minutes.”

Yeah, we’re are an addicted culture. Phones, bars, money, applause….

As a reader, I found the text to be so interesting, page ninety-eight especially. The collection of multiple writing styles and character point of views and numbers on the page gave it almost a dream-like feeling.

Yeah I’m just obsessed with basic stuff, like how a person reads and sees. Listens. All the possibilities in surfaces and perception.

The Spud is the author’s obsession manifested: the characters and experiences bending and blending. Perception isn’t just a one way street; it’s layered, nuanced! One can only pray our perceptions aren’t so convoluted; we don’t know where we’re going. Through the infinite layers of experience, Brilliant grabs the reader by our shoulders.

The Spud is available now for pre-order through Featherproof Books Press here.

Brielle Brilliant is a writer and filmmaker currently based in Chicago, IL. You can reach her here. She is currently looking for the perfect street lamp.

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

REVIEW: (in)habit by Dana Alsamsam

By Tim Crisp

Long ago, we grew permanent in our damage.

The line appears within the third stanza of a poem called “(dis)solution” from Dana Alsamsam’s chapbook (in)habit. “(dis)solution” describes the morning Alsamsam’s parents were legally separated, but as the quote suggests, and as the preceding poems of (in)habit showcase, the unraveling was a long and traumatic process. Over the course of the book, Alsamsam describes the process of trying to build from a broken foundation.

(in)habit is divided into two sections titled (inhalations) and (exhalations), each preceded by a statement of intent. In (inhalations), Alsamsam states, “I attempt to describe my architecture,” building upon her relationships with her parents—her mother, specifically—and key moments that have shaped her sense of self. (exhalations) breaks the past selves apart, in search of a new meaning. The search does not come easy, as Alsamsam traces familiar, unhealthy paths, seeking validation. She encounters the stares of objectifying eyes and the vacancy of lovers who bring nothing but emptiness, but slowly she gains perspective on the pieces of herself and her relationships that can be harnessed in forward movement.

The prose of (in)habit is sharp and careful. Alsamsam utilizes poetic forms with a sense of functionality and an understanding of the power a structure can have in communicating a precise message. “petrichor” charts an anxious walk home alone, escaping the torment of a heckler. The poem’s lines are tightly bound, its syllables contained as the eyes follow down the page in rhythm to Alsamsam’s quickened, nervous steps. “Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France” is a prose poem that offers a snapshot of Alsamsam and her mother, standing on opposite sides of a wide street in Paris. “I am scouring her sacred heart for warmth but it’s too late and there’s too much distance between us,” she thinks, wondering who will be the one to cross the street. It’s a small snapshot of a fractured relationship, but a representative one. Alsamsam works within these tiny moments, the painful ones, but also the tender ones. It’s in the moments that the greater understandings are found, and sprinkled throughout the harrowing moments of (in)habit, there are also tiny bits of warmth.

“The Shapes We Make” brings readers into a quiet morning in a shared apartment with coffee, a mischievous cat, and an attentive partner. Little is said until the moment one asks if the other would like more coffee, “I realize the brief tragedy of flesh,” Alsamsam notes, “is shifted to a warm and furnished place.” Within the fear and the trauma that builds throughout (in)habit, warmth such as this is a gift to relish in.

courtesy of  tenderness, yea

courtesy of tenderness, yea

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Representation and Accessibility at the Forefront of New Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology

By Bella Crum

Ghost Fishing, an Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, is a three section collection that came out of University of Georgia Press on April 1st of this year. The term "ghost fishing" is the name for what happens when improperly discarded fishing gear is left to float through the ocean, trapping and killing a tragic amount of sea life in its path. The anthology takes this term for its name, alongside a blue-grey ramshackled industrial scene on the cover, setting readers up to think gloomily about safety, displacement and destruction.

This anthology took off in its ability to make both eco-justice and poetry feel accessible and relatable. At the forefront of this is the well sought out inclusion of diverse cultural and identity representations in the poets and their topics. Compiling a truly representational book of ecologically and socially aware poetry from a subject historically shadowed by cliché dead white men musing about flowers is no small feat. In doing so, editor Melissa Tuckey helped correct the cliché and successfully acknowledged readers who have felt their narratives on this topic were broadly unheard and unaccounted for up until this point.

To add to this, the use of plain language in the thoughtful forewords placed before each section offered a way in for every reader. These brief introductions were something that stood out, as they did not necessarily seek to teach, as many anthologies do. Instead, they opened a window into what each author intended and why the poem was included in the anthology, thus allowing the poetry to do the teaching. By effectively piecing together each poem’s relationship with eco-justice using direct language and annotated excerpts, the anthology became accessible to a wide variety of readers — regardless of if they had experience interacting with poetry or not.

I was thoroughly surprised by how eco-justice was continually defined and redefined throughout the anthology. Integrating racism, native peoples and land, war, human and animal connections, and food in one cohesive collection is a union I didn’t know I was waiting for. By including such a wide range of topics, people are able to relate and by virtue, can envision themselves as a player in the conversation surrounding eco-justice.

Reading this anthology was refreshing, and I have already recommended it to many of my fellow writers who muse on topics ranging from race and culture to trauma and the natural environment. Ghost Fishing houses a range of insightful voices that create a powerhouse resource for socially and ecologically aware narratives, illustrating that eco-justice concerns us all. Not only is this book for poets, but it is a book for anyone who lives anywhere, seeking to better understand eco-justice and its many manifestations through the power of poetry.  

Courtesy or UGA Press

Courtesy or UGA Press