An Interview with Jef Cornelis

by Vladimir Seput (MA Film Programming and Curating)

The discussion took place ahead of the symposium, ‘You Know the Way and the Language :  Public Spaces | Buildings | Engagement : The Essayistic in the TV work of Jef Cornelis at BRT’. This event was organised as part of the Essay Film Festival at Birkbeck, University of London and took place on Monday 18 May, 2018.

Please notice that his wife Kristine Kloeck, inspired by previous interviews and comments made by Jef, who for reasons of health cannot participate in debate nor answer questions, has answered on his behalf.

Vladimir Seput (VS) : At the end of March, the Essay Film Festival will show a selection of your work from the 1970s and 1980s.  You started making films during the 1960s for the Flemish Belgian public service broadcaster, BRT (Belgische Radio- en Televisieomroep), with three works on historic buildings  [Het Kasteel van Alden Biezen (On the castle of Alden Biezen, 1964), Abdij van Park Heverlee (Park Abbey Heverlee, 1964)  and Plus d’Honneur que d’Honneurs (Heaped with Honours, 1965), about the Castle of the Princes de Mérode in Westerlo]. Could you tell us more about the beginnings of your career: when did you become interested in documentary work and how you got involved in making those films?

Kristine Kloeckon behalf of Jef (KK) : When Jef left the film academy of Amsterdam and returned to Belgium-Flanders, he refused a job in the private sector (photogravure and print of art books). Although fascinated by cinema (like, the nouvelle vague), he found it near impossible to make a living as an independent filmmaker in the 1960s, as there wasn’t much of a market for film in Flanders. That’s why he started to work for the BRT, the young public broadcast, where a lack of structure and know-how offered him the chance to follow his own ideas and obsessions. In the first two years Jef learnt the job from working on the floor. The first project he realized [Het Kasteel van Alden Biezen, 1964] was a great success. This allowed him access to exceptional facilities (more budget, more production time, his own crew, etc) to realize further projects he’d proposed to BRT.

VS : Were you influenced by other contemporary filmmakers, like Alain Resnais, or Alexandre Astruc and his concept of camera-stylo? If that’s the case, what did you find intriguing in their approach?

KK: Alexandre Astruc and other filmmakers of the new wave were intriguing for Jef as a young television maker :  their use of  cinema as a written, literary language to express abstract ideas probably influenced his way of telling with long, rhythmic and serial camera movements.

VS : In the three decades or so when you worked at BRT, you produced more than 200 films on a wide range of topics, from art and culture to architecture and landscape. What are your thoughts about the quality of television programmes produced today and, more specifically, how these programmes deal with culture?

KK : For Jef television programmes are mostly insignificant and mainly rubbish: he is not interested in quizshow, publicity, amusement, talking heads, with the exception of the daily news as a (selective) view on what is happening in the world.

                Belgian TV no longer offers any critical platform to raise awareness of the potentials of the arts, … “[yet] it’s hard now to be commissioned for TV work unless it has a commercial edge.”

VS : Visual rhythm plays an important part in your productions on architecture and landscape. Was that something important for you, a rhythm as a constitutive part in presenting environment?

KK : Although Jef is a fan of mute cinema and silent images that speak for themselves (without voice or comment) in most of his films – beside the visual rhythm as determined by the camera movements and the editing – the soundtrack is a constitutive and expensive part of the project. For several films, a musician of Jef’s choice composed the music. This person was associated with the project from the start and enjoyed complete freedom in conceiving of the composition. In so doing, image and sound are gradually constructed as a dialogue, the image follows the sound and vice versa.

VS: What aspect of filmmaking did you find most challenging at the time:  was it screenwriting, direction or production?

KK: These roles and functions must be distinguished, but can’t be strictly separated. Filmmaking necessitates a permanent circulation of ideas and mutual adaptations, a continual dialogue between professional partners. Jef’s role as a director was to coordinate, to solve all the problems and to harness the work in progress.  

VS: In 1966 you made a film about a major art exhibition, the Venice Biennale/Biennale di Venezia, exploring exhibition and curatorial practice , after which you went on to complete two others on documenta 4 (1968) and documenta 5 (1972) in Kassel. What was your experience of these major art events? Were they important for you as an artist in a formative way, apart from the films you made about them?

KK : In this kind of filmmaking, Jef did not realise pure documentaries and nor was he a pure receptive spectator, but instead part of the game’: a dialogue between the artist and the filmmaker is an essential constitutive element of this kind of film.  Jef gave a platform to the artist to expose his motives and his work, and at the same time Jef formulated comments himself with provocative and experimental camera movements and soundtracks.

VS : In 2014, your work was shown at the Liverpool Biennial curated by Koen Brams [independent scholar and one of the featured guest speakers at the symposium, You Know the Way and the Language]. Since your films always explore relationships between television, documentary and art, what do you think about showing and watching films on television or cinema as opposed to a gallery space? Do you find the experience between these viewing contexts different?

KK : It is a different experience indeed, and according to Jef both approaches are justified and worthwhile, depending on the intention of the curator and the motives of the spectator/visitor. By showing/watching the films in a médiathèque or video library, the spectator watches all the films in the same television format, whatever the character oe aim. He/she can make a personal choice, ‘zapping’ through the different films and watching them for a shorter or longer time. It is certainly the more informative approach.

                In a ‘ gallery approach’, the curator gives an overview of the filmography and can make use of different formats and displays, taking into account the diversity of styles and subjects of the films. Films with a cinematographic character are shown on a cinema screen, reportage on a (bigger or smaller) TV screen, and the context can also be variable (an intimate TV room, a big gallery-space, etc). By doing so the aesthetics and artistic dimensions of the work are more evidently illuminated.

VS: During your career, you collaborated with some of the major figures in arts, culture and literature. Is there anyone in the art or film world today whose work you find intriguing?

KK: Jef certainly estimates contemporary artists, filmmakers and other professionals working in different fields and disciplines (philosophers, musicians, sociologists, architects and urbanists, poets and writers etc), as he always did. But since 1997, he hasn’t been involved in TV making and this different position makes him watching film and the arts from another perspective.

 VS : Are there any projects that you wanted to do but never managed? Is there any unrealised dream?

KK: During his career at BRT, some projects couldn’t be realised because of a lack of budget: for instance, a film about the architecture of Rem Koolhaas.

                Jef stopped making TV works in 1997, because of changing circumstances at the public broadcaster, which impacted decisively on the kind of films he could make. There was no room any long for experimental and analytic film essays, as the size of the audience had become the norm.

                He was only 56. In that sense there are unrealized dreams.

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