Pauline Beugnies is an author, photographer, and director from Belgium. For 10 years, she has been documenting the emancipation of youth in Egypt in multiple forms: photo exhibitions, 2012 web documentary “Sout El Shabab” (“The Voice of the Youth”), 2016 photography book “Génération Tahrir,” and “Rester Vivants” (“Still Alive”), her award-winning first feature documentary. Beugnies made her fiction debut with the short “Shams,” the love story of two women in Cairo. It received two awards at the 2020 Brussels Short Film Festival. Beugnies is currently writing her first feature film.
“The End of Innocence” (“Petites”) is screening at the 2022 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, which is taking place April 28-May 8. Find more information on the fest’s website.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
PB: “The End of Innocence” tells the story of the criminal Dutroux case in Belgium through the testimonies of the generation of children, now grown up, who were exposed far too early to the sordid in the privacy of their homes. So it is more a story about what this case and its coverage did to those children than a true crime [narrative]. The Dutroux case is commonly described as Belgium’s worst pedocriminal case, where several young girls were abducted, raped, and killed by Marc Dutroux and his accomplices in 1995-1996. The horror of the facts was compounded by a series of judicial errors that hampered the investigation.
This affair plunged the country into a state of shock, culminating in the White March, 25 years ago, where more than 350,000 demonstrators marched in silence through the streets of Brussels, to express their disgust and sadness. Adults who were between seven and 17 years old at that time tell us about the striking images and moments they recall, their impact on their lives, their relation to adults, to the community, and also to sexuality. For some, the Dutroux affair marked the end of bike rides in the countryside.
Others discovered the existence of sexual violence. Some also felt an impotent rage towards the judicial system. We never see them on the screen. We only hear their voices. Their memories complement one another to form a collective voice-over, that rebuilds the events from the disappearance of two young girls, Julie and Melissa, in 1995 to the trial of Marc Dutroux and his accomplices in 2004. Images from the TV news, often consumed without explanations from adults, have permanently shaped their vision of the world.
News reports, combined with family VHS tapes of the witnesses, visually express the interference of this case with their carefree childhood. The memories of the protagonists are altered by time, distorted by media coverage, and limited by their youth and innocence. Together, they tell an intimate version of the story. A piece of collective memory.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
PB: When it all started, I was 13 years old. My little sister was two years younger. We were very much marked by the events at the time, she even more than me. She became an insomniac. We grew up with that. The Dutroux affair has terribly soiled the image of our city Charleroi. Our life changed radically at that time. It is one of the stories that built the person I am today. It’s very hard to tackle the Dutroux case. It’s a huge taboo in Belgium. People are more or less marked by those events. I don’t feel personally traumatized by this case. I don’t necessarily want people to say that this is the trauma of a generation. It is more a piece of our collective memory.
When I started working on the film, I went to get a box of family VHS tapes in my basement. I didn’t open it for a long time. I found two programs recorded about Dutroux lost in the middle of family parties, communions, and trips to Italy. The interference of this affair in our private lives was there in front of my eyes. That’s when I got the idea to mix the stories from TV and private archives. What interests me is the trace that the media narrative of the Dutroux affair has left on our generation. The film is about how stories define us, how the stories we are told as children allow us to build the adults we are today. It’s a story we’ve been told, re-told, but always in the same way, from the same point of view. I just want to try to tell the story differently. I am not a sociologist, I am not a scientist.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
PB: When I started the project I was angry at the media. I have a background in journalism and I often question the way things are covered, the influence it has on people and our sense of community. It was a bit incriminatory. As I worked on the subject and collected testimonies, my point of view shifted a little. I still think that we could have done better in terms of media coverage, but the object of my anger has shifted. Today, in my daughter’s class, one in five children is potentially sexually abused. How is this possible? For me, it’s unbearable. We put a monster in prison and the idea that Dutroux will be released one day drives us crazy, but pedocriminality continues to be ultra taboo. The victims are still made to feel guilty. Everything has been thrown in our faces, we watched TV reports with our families where they talked about sexual abuse in detail, but today the word of a victim is still inaudible.
I am simplifying a little but this paradox is difficult to accept as an adult. I want to participate in putting this in the public arena, to try to get people to take hold of the film, to make it a subject that can be talked about. I want to raise questions about the way we live together more than make people think my way. I want to open a dialogue and us to be able to talk about matters that are not so easy to talk about usually. If after seeing my film, people start to reflect on their own childhood, relationship to media coverage and storytelling in general, collective responsibilities towards children, pedocriminality today, and open different kind of discussions, then I’ll feel I did a good job.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
PB: The biggest challenge making that film was to find the collective voice for it. I gathered many various testimonies of people on the same story remembered in many similar ways. I wanted them to tell the story together. I made the interviews separately and afterwards edited them to make it “one voice,” the voice of a generation.
Part of the challenge was to find a method to edit that voice together with the archive material. Find a method in the editing room with 50 hours of sound interviews and hundreds of hours of archives. I have to thank here the editor Léo Parmentier for doing a great job, knowing the case from a different point of view — younger and not Belgian — and having the right distance from that material. Choosing carefully to make a dialogue between the personal archives and the VHS family archives. It was touchy: How do you show an image you think we shouldn’t have shown at the time, how do you put that specific image in a perspective so it’s okay to see it again?
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
PB: Our film is funded mainly with the public money from the cinema center in Belgium with a writing grant and then a production grant. We also got funding from a small documentary production atelier workshop, WIP, which is very precious for documentary makers in Belgium because it helps fragile projects that would never exist otherwise. We also had some tax shelter money and a co-production with state TV, RTBF.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
PB: I studied journalism. I worked for many years as a photojournalist. On the side, I was making longer photo documentary projects. This is how I made my first film, “Still Alive,” because at one point still images were not enough for me, I needed to carry the voices of the people I was photographing. So this is how it began and then I enjoyed the process of making that film so much because it was a collective effort. Coming from photography, which can be a very lonely job, I enjoyed even more the beautiful common effort that we need to make a film.
I’m still taking pictures today and writing pieces for some magazines. I’m currently working on my first feature film but it’s based on documentary research. Field work is very important to me.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
PB: I have the chance to be surrounded by beautiful people from whom I learn a lot. I’m still learning every day, it’s a process. I don’t have one specific piece of advice in mind.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
PB: I guess the one I would give is to trust one’s intuition because it’s so powerful when we are encouraged to do so. I feel that very often we are encouraged to take a different direction than the first one we wanted to take and we should listen to advice, of course, but we should also try to reconnect with that very genuine intuition that we have and why we wanted to do that in the first place.
As an example in the film I’m presenting, “The End of Innocence,” I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to have the witnesses onscreen, and wanted to concentrate only on their voices. It was a little bit extreme and radical maybe, and this choice for some people in the process of making the film was too bold. But I knew this was the way I wanted to do it and I tried to hold on to that and I’m so happy I did.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
PB: I think of two women directors: Céline Sciamma for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and another woman director I discovered recently, Kaouther Ben Hania for her film “The Man Who Sold His Skin.”
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
PB: I had the chance to continue during that time. I was working on more than one project at the same time, at different stages, so I was writing and then I was shooting when it was possible and so I didn’t really I stop. And for months in the beginning I could work less and take care and see my children grow up, so that was nice too.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
PB: I guess we should be more inclusive at every level of the filmmaking process. Decision-makers should be new people coming from different misrepresented communities. I feel that now we encourage different people to make films, but then we don’t have the right people choosing the films that will be seen in the end. It’s a struggle. We have to continue fighting at every level to open and diversify our industry.