Nationality: Belgian. Born: Ixelles, Belgium, 9 February 1957. Education: Studied film at I.N.S.A.S., Brussels, and Louis Lumière School, Paris. Family: Married Laurette Vankeerberghen; children: Alice, Juliette. Career: Worked as a mime and clown in Belgium's "Big Flying Circus." Awards: Student Academy Awards (USA), Honorary Foreign Film Award, for Maedeli la Breche , 1981; Camera d'Or and Young Cinema Award, Cannes Film Festival, Joseph Plateau Award for Best Belgian Director, Flanders International Film Festival, International Fantasy Film Awards for Best Film and Best Screenplay, Fantasporto, European Film Awards for Best Screenwriter and Best Young Film, Cesar Award (France) for Best Foreign Film, BAFTA (UK) Award for Best Film not in English language, all for Toto le Heros (Toto the Hero) , 1991; Joseph Plateau Award, Flanders International Film Festival, for Le Huitieme Jour (The Eighth Day) , 1996. Address: 1 Rue de l'Augette, 1330 Rixenart, Brussels, Belgium.
Maedelia la Breche
Sortie de Secours
E Pericoloso Sporgersi
Toto le Heros (Toto the Hero) (+sc)
Lumière and Company (contributing director in series of shorts)
Le Huitieme Jour (The Eighth Day) (+sc)
Spotlight on a Massacre: Ten Films against Land Mines (contributing director)
Sur la Terre Comme au Ciel (Between Heaven and Earth) (Hansel) (sc)
The Eighth Day and Toto the Hero , New York, 1997.
"Toto Adds up its Felix Victories," in Hollywood Reporter , 5 January 1991
"Toto le Heros," in Hollywood Reporter , 3 March 1992
"Getting It Half Right," in Time , 3 June 1996
"The Eighth Day," in Hollywood Reporter , 3 March 1997
* * *
There is an essence of joy in Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael's films. His use of children and child-like characters is both skillful and subtle. The directorial talent displayed in his 1991 film Toto Le Heros brought abrupt international attention to his work. Van Dormael's playfulness may relate to his experiences as a mime and clown for "The Big Flying Circus" in Belgium.
Toto (who likens himself a hero, a savior of righteousness and a crusader for truth) is certain that he was switched at birth with the boy next door, Alfred. While young Toto suffers through a painful childhood, Alfred enjoys wealth, abundance, and happiness. The film moves effortlessly between the past (as Toto the Hero, a boyhood fantasy identity ) and present (as an elderly Toto, invoking this "secret agent" inside). Toto craves revenge and moves toward a resolution as he recounts the events of his miserable life. The film propelled Van Dormael into the international spotlight as both a writer and director.
In the wake of this success, Van Dormael participated in the ambitious 1995 project Lumière and Company. This work is actually an anthology of very short works (on average 60–90 seconds) contributed by prominent film directors from all over the world. The magical element in this collection comes from the camera itself: each director used the original Lumière motion picture camera to make his film. At the same time, Van Dormael was at work writing his next major work.
He wanted to make a more linear film than Toto le Heros , one which explored the world through the eyes of a man with Down's syndrome. Le Huitieme Jour (The Eighth Day) accomplishes this with the chance meeting and bizarre interactions between Georges (played brilliantly by Pascal Duquenne)and Harry (an unhappy, divorced businessman portrayed by Daniel Auteuil). Van Dormael wanted to show those very human elements present in Georges which so-called "normal" people don't have. Van Dormael's interest in Mongols (as they are called throughout the film) stems from an interest in their "talent for life, for loving life, that we often lack." He sought to explore the concept of two worlds (that of Georges and that of Harry) existing simultaneously and yet separately.
Le Huitieme Jour begins with a delightfully surreal journey depicting God's creation through the first seven days. We learn at the end of the film that the Eighth Day brought us Georges. What lies between is a well-photographed tale of friendship between two men who share adventures, joys, and sorrows over a period of several days. The film walks a fine line between poignant and parody. The film won several international awards, including dual Best Actor awards at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival for Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne. The two do share an amazing chemistry on screen, and while their performances merit recognition, Le Huitieme Jour relies heavily on conventions found in Hollywood films about the slow-witted. We see allusions to Rain Man , Of Mice and Men , and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest used throughout; the images are charming, but they seem to detract from the originality of the story. Duquenne is a talented actor who has Down's syndrome himself, and his characterization of Georges is stellar.
Since Le Huitieme Jour , Van Dormael has participated in another collaborative piece in the style of Lumière and Company. Spotlight on a Massacre: Ten Films against Land Mines (1998) is a collection of short films that works as an anti-land mine campaign. Individual films in the piece focus on human suffering in the wake of such weapons and make a strong case against their perpetuation.
Van Dormael has used his experiences as a clown to infuse his writing with a playful sensibility that is at once seductive and joyful. Yet his work as a director has continued to evolve in more serious ways as well. His work is of political and historical importance as much as it is a love poem to life.