Sorrow Is Not My Name: Bas Devos Discusses «Here»

Here (Bas Devos, 2023).

       Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.
       Graves grow no green that you can use.
       Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.

      —Gwendolyn Brooks, “To the Young Who Want to Die”

Cynicism has no place in Bas Devos’s Here (2023), a meshwork of small utopias in which the most urgent problem, on the surface of things, is the prospect of some vegetables going to waste. Set in Brussels, the nominal center of the European Union, this hopeful film takes shelter from present political crises and follows two placid characters, a first-generation Romanian migrant and a second-generation Chinese Belgian academic, whose narratives of minor events entwine in two chance encounters. They take cover from the rain with each other. They cross paths on wooded trails.

If the deictic of the title—that lovely, laconic “here”—signals a stance of presence, then it is a stance attuned to delicate intimacies and the green hues of nature. Being present does not involve, for instance, the “now” of current affairs. No filmmaker who borrows affectionately from a poem with the title “Sorrow Is Not My Name” could be a doomscroller, after all. As a reader, Devos instead immerses himself in books that combine the lyrical and the theoretical to envision other possible worlds.

In the film, Stefan Gota plays a construction worker, while Liyo Gong (not habitually an actor, but an editor who has worked with Wang Bing, among others) plays a scholar of bryology, the study of moss. Gota’s character is saying goodbye to Brussels when something—friendship? romance?—blossoms with Gong’s. Whether he is saying goodbye for a matter of weeks or for longer is ambiguous; long enough, either way, to call on family and friends before he leaves. Devos refers to his gentle characters—the Romanian laborer, the Chinese scholar—as Stefan and Shuxiu in interviews and literature around the film, but neither one introduces themselves by name in the film itself. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss (2003), a cultural history that inspired Devos while he was writing Here, suggests that words help us to see the world, but the film itself is ambivalent about names and words, often enjoying the dewy anonymity of its ephemeral environment. 

Here (Bas Devos, 2023).

When Shuxiu first speaks, she describes, in voice-over, waking and forgetting the names of the objects around her. That evocation of disorientation does not accompany compensatory images of a bedroom—shadows of things in muted morning light—but images of sunlit trees. Words do not illuminate the world here (the image does that well enough), instead communicating an experience of coming to the world. Words of first-thing grogginess fumble for a reticent world, just out of reach. Describing more often than naming, Here elongates the soft time in which words and perception do not fall and then firm into place. Stefan and Shuxiu dwell in the liquid beginning of a new relationship, content with knowing little about one another, brought together by serendipities instead. “What’s his name?” is asked only toward the end of the film, and goes unanswered. 

Speaking with Devos in October, I felt compelled to insist on the relative optimism of Here. In the character of Stefan, the film grazes the minefield topic of migrant labor in Europe, and it is nonetheless so nice. How could that be? That question was less an accusation than an attack of disbelief. That question, worded otherwise: What is the secret, the one to this hope? Etymologically, “nice” derives from the Latin nescire, “to not know.” Is Here nice because it is ignorant? Or is this not-knowing of another order?

Ernst Bloch, a Marxist philosopher who was committed to the concept of utopia, began his magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (1954), with a series of questions: “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we waiting for? What awaits us?” While those questions in postwar Europe might have led another thinker only to fear and anxiety, Bloch writes that “the creators of fear have been dealt with, a feeling that suits us better is overdue.” And that superior feeling, for Bloch, is hope. 

Whatever reservations I have about the film—a sanctuary maybe too much adrift from the wider world—these are alleviated by its creation of hopeful affect. That, in the miserable context of the present moment, is no small feat. What Here does best is to create a hospitable space that prepares us to go out into the world again; as a window onto the world, it makes it look… well, so nice.

Here (Bas Devos, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: There are a few narrative threads in Here. Did the film begin with an image or an idea? How were the other elements of the story then woven in? 

BAS DEVOS: Making a film often begins, for me, with a lot of not knowing and stumbling around in the dark. But I was inspired by a bunch of books I was reading, and by Stefan Gota. I had worked with Stefan on another film, and I wanted to see more of him. Through speaking with Stefan—a Romanian living and working in Belgium—I became interested in patterns of labor migration between the two countries. There is a dream of return among the Romanian population in Belgium. For some, the dream is real: When the house is finished in Cluj, I’ll go back to Cluj. For others, the dream is only a dream and they have in reality put down new roots in Brussels.

NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting that the film began with Stefan and Brussels—because for me the film soon drifts into feeling placeless. I don’t think Here gives us a recognizable picture of Brussels. 

DEVOS: I was just speaking with someone who had lived in Brussels for a long time, and she said the same thing. But I recognize this Brussels: it’s my city. Every location in the film is a place that I know and I like, a place I wanted to see on film—the Chinese restaurant, for instance, which was also a starting point, among the others. But while writing the film, the turning point was the soup. Reflecting on that migrant dream of return, I was imagining what would happen if you left a space and you weren’t sure whether you were going to come back. I thought, Well, I would unplug the fridge… But then what would I do with the stuff inside the fridge? I liked the idea that Stefan’s character would find food there and then not be able to throw it away. It says something about him: he acts with a certain care. And then the nice thing about soup is that you always make too much.


DEVOS: So he has all of this soup, and handing it out becomes a ritual—and a beautiful way of saying goodbye.

Here (Bas Devos, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: How did moss become such a significant part of the film?

DEVOS: I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss and began to look at moss, thinking about its links with the world. I connected it to thinking about finding roots or feeling an absence of roots, because moss is a rootless plant.

NOTEBOOK: Perhaps there is something about Gathering Moss that is poetic; there are moments in the voice-over and the dialogue with a certain literary quality too. When the bryologist first speaks, she talks about waking up and introduces another of the film’s themes—that of a nameless world. In her hypnagogic state, she doesn’t know how to give words to things that surround her. That passage is beautiful, as is one of the film’s last lines: “I remember. My color is green.” For me, it really sounded like poetry.

DEVOS: I stole that line from a poem, actually…

NOTEBOOK: What was the poem?

DEVOS: “Sorrow is Not My Name,” by Ross Gay, an American poet. And he borrows that line from another poet… I forget the name of that poem. [Author’s note: That poem is “To the Young Who Want to Die” by Gwendolyn Brooks.]

NOTEBOOK: So you’re reading about plant life, and you’re reading poetry. I’m curious to hear more about cinematic influences. One name that came to mind when I was watching the film, for instance, was Valeska Grisebach. Here reminded me of Western [2017] insofar as both depict alternative masculinities in the space of construction work.

DEVOS: Everything has an effect on me: I am like a sponge. I appreciate Valeska Grisebach’s work a lot. I feel affinities with filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Hong Sang-soo. Actually, the filmmaker I admire the most is Kevin Jerome Everson, even if his work has nothing to do with mine. I can’t decipher what seeing those films has done to me. But Gathering Moss—fuck. She made me think about an invisible world in ways that I hadn’t at all before. And then there is this book by Anna Tsing.

NOTEBOOK: The Mushroom at the End of the World [2015]?

DEVOS: Yeah, that set in motion a lot of thinking about the natural world and the weirdness of our influence on it. 

Here (Bas Devos, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: I’d like to talk about utopian thinking. Speaking to a friend about the film, he described it as, basically, without a bad bone in its body: there is no evil and no violence in Here. Another friend said—without being at all dismissive about the film—that it was “nice.” Are you generally an optimist, or did you have to make a concerted effort in Here to think positively about the world? In the present moment there is a tendency to despair, and the film feels different in that respect.  

DEVOS: Ben Rivers and Ben Russell made a film called A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness [2013]. Here is an attempt at protection against darkness. Film is generally a way to think about what isn’t otherwise possible, and it is necessary for me as a human being not to despair. Is that an answer? 

NOTEBOOK: Of course.

DEVOS: Now that I’m thinking about it, perhaps it is true I made a conscious effort to preserve a kind of generosity in the film, and this is utopian. At the same time, there is nothing in the film that isn’t real for me: these are things that I see and experience. I think we often make a deliberate effort not to see tenderness that is in fact there: we are so trained, so governed by capitalist ways of seeing. What’s that saying: “There’s no alternative…”? 

NOTEBOOK: Oh sure, capitalist realism: that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism [Editor’s note: from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009)].

DEVOS: But there is an alternative. I’m not saying that my film is activism…but it is, in some sense, radical; it proposes alternative ways of being—being in the world, being with each other. I don’t think it offers a greater salvation, but the film does try to say that there is a lot of care in the world. 

NOTEBOOK: In an interview with Joshua Minsoo Kim, you said you speak philosophically with your daughter, and about feminism with your girlfriend. As someone with an interest in both feminism and philosophy, I’m curious to know more about those conversations. How do they inform your thinking at the moment? How do they contribute to anything you’re working on now?

DEVOS: I’m going to make a film together with a friend of mine which will be about our mothers. That generation of women is so different from the generation of my girlfriend. I don’t want to generalize, but I think there was a sense of sacrifice in the care given by my parents and their generation. I find the burden of motherhood interesting. We haven’t found a way in yet, and maybe the film will take a completely different turn, but for now we’re drawn to motherhood a lot, thinking about the distance we feel from someone we love the most.

NOTEBOOK: A Belgian tradition to draw on there, in Chantal Akerman… 

DEVOS: Yeah, fuck—the relationship with her mother is so fraught. Maybe “fraught” isn’t the right word.  

NOTEBOOK: No, it works.

DEVOS: What does it mean again?

NOTEBOOK: Complicated, tricky…

DEVOS: With a pejorative quality to it.

NOTEBOOK: Totally. Speaking with your daughter as you’re thinking about motherhood will be interesting.

DEVOS: She is an influence. She wrote a comic book. There is just one page. The text is: When at first you open your eyes: glaciers and rivers. And then you realize. And I said, “You realize what?” And she said, “That’s it.” [Laughs.]