“I never think: ‘I still have to put a gay character in.’” – Director Norbert ter Hall on his new European film &ME.
Albert Meijer │ firstname.lastname@example.org
On March 14th, &ME, an unconventional love story set in Brussels, premiered in the Netherlands and Belgium. The Euroculturer talked to director Nortbert ter Hall about love, homosexuality, Europe and the ‘Easyjet-generation’.
“We all travel between Brussels and Strasbourg, because we can’t make any decisions.”
“The secret of being together for 22 years? He’s the one!”
“It’s very exciting to be making this movie, as it is the first time that I wrote a script myself”.
Sitting in front of me in a café in Amsterdam is a director with big, black glasses but without the artsy-fartsy attitude you would expect from directors with such glasses. Norbert ter Hall is intelligent and friendly when he talks to me about his new movie, &ME. Meanwhile, he orders coffee after coffee.
In the Netherlands, Ter Hall is mostly known for directing the series A’dam – E.V.A. which is about love, relationships and friendships in Amsterdam, and ‘t Schaep met de Vijf Pooten (The Sheep With Five Legs), a comedy series about a small pub in the Dutch capital. He started as a set-designer, but quickly developed into a director, mostly of television series.
“I never planned on becoming a director, but I’ve been directing for 25 years now. As a director, you shouldn’t wait for lightning to strike, for inspiration to come. You have to make a solid plan next to having a good idea. The technical aspects of film-making are quite simple to learn; an average person can learn those within a week.”
&ME, based on the book Fremdkörper by Oscar van den Boogaard, tells the story of the German Eduard Schiller (Mark Waschke), who moves to Brussels to work in the European Parliament. He has had enough of his life in Berlin, with fleeting one-night-stands with men. What he wants now, more than anything, is happiness.
He literally bumps into the Spanish intern Edurne (Veronica Echegui), who came to Brussels to escape her overprotective mother (Rossy de Palma). She falls in love with Eduard, he wants to give the romance a try, even if it’s with a woman. The Dutch mover Richard (Teun Luijkx) finds in them the ideal couple. In his wish to believe in true love, he tries to bring the two together, but eventually gets entangled in the relationship.
“The essence of the movie is that it is about people that try to love each other. The question is: can you make your own happiness, or does it happen to you by accident? I’m very optimistic on human relations: we need to stick it out with each other, don’t we? I try my best, but I’m not always successful. Life is like skating on an icy river. You try to skate, but you end up limping around on your skates on the ground, because the ice’s too thin. It’s not as graceful, but at least it looks funny.”
The successful series A’dam – E.V.A. was intensely connected to the place where the stories came together: Amsterdam. I wonder if Brussels is equally inspiring.
“A’dam – E.V.A. was a declaration of love to Amsterdam, yes, but at the core it was a declaration of love to how people are connected to each other. It could have played in a different city. In that aspect, &ME is not so different from A’dam – E.V.A. It’s about connections, about living together, but on a European scale.”
The symbolism in &ME is clear. The main characters leave their countries to connect to each other in Brussels, just like the European countries themselves. A second parallel between the movie and the European Union is the difficulty of making decisions. “The main characters want to start a new life by moving away, but they’re stuck to who they are. You can’t escape your choices. The same is true for the EU: the monthly migration between Brussels and Strasbourg is good for nothing. Everybody knows it’s not a smart move, but it’s easier not to make any final decisions. I find that very human. We all travel between Brussels and Strasbourg, so to speak, because we can’t make any decisions.”
The movie will be shown in the Netherlands and Belgium first, but Ter Hall is talking to distributors in Germany, Spain and France. Money for film projects often comes from several countries, but movies rarely picture the internationalism of modern life.
“There are not many pan-European movies, with notable exceptions such as L’Auberge Español. I think that’s peculiar in the day and age of the ‘Easyjet-generation’. Many people now have friends abroad, work abroad, study abroad. Many Dutch movies are geared towards the Netherlands only, but I think it’s much more interesting when a movie travels. I love seeing beautiful movies from Greece or Italy. It really broadens your horizon.”
In the &ME press-kit Ter Hall gave me, it says that he often works with screenwriter Robert Alberdingk Thijm. That’s no coincidence: they have been married for 12 and a half years. “I was looking for a screen writer for a children show I was directing. A common friend told me to talk to Robert. He came by, stayed the night, and never really left after that. We’ve been together for 22 years now. We work together a lot. He wrote the script for A’dam – E.V.A. for instance. We don’t clash on set, he’s not always there. Mostly, he just comes by to eat lunch with me.
A lot of what Robert wrote in A’dam – E.V.A. is based on someone we know. The main characters, Adam and Eva, get a tattoo of a wedding ring on their fingers, but eventually don’t get married. That’s based on my brother and sister-in-law. They never married, but their tattooed rings are just as meaningful as real wedding rings would have been.”
Robert and I have never changed our registered partnership into an actual marriage” (which was only possible in the Netherlands in 2001, red.), “but I think it’s the same thing anyway. We find each other in the love of telling stories, in the enjoyment of other people’s stories. We’re not that romantic ourselves, although I find it very romantic when Robert brings me a cup of coffee in bed sometimes. The secret of being together for 22 years? He’s the one!”
With series like Six Feet Under, Glee and Modern Family, the amount of gay characters on television has increased enormously. In the works of Ter Hall, there are a lot of queer characters to be found as well.
“It’s not something I do consciously; I never think ‘I still have to put a gay person in’. My work is a reflection of the world around me, and there are gay people in there, just like there are children, elderly people, Spanish people …
Homosexuality is more in the open than before, but it’s still seen as something exceptional. In a children’s series I recently made, there’s one character, a boy, who dresses up like a girl. I received some angry reactions to that, people said: “Do you always have to do that?” I thought: always? People can be so negative. I’m not an activist. Robert and I do discuss it: we have a stage, so we feel we have to critically assess what we do with that stage, but in the first place it’s about the story, not the political motives we might have.”
It took a long time for me to conclude that I was gay; I think I was in my twenties when I was sure. I grew up in a relatively small town, with very open parents who I could easily talk to. When I went to art school, I still wasn’t afraid of negative reactions. The only thing that I thought sucked was the fact that you always have to tell everybody. Still, coming out is a learning experience. You make it very clear who you are and what you stand for. It makes it easier to be clear in other fields of your life as well.
Robert and I have a summer-house in a village in France. We never get any negative reactions there, but there is a lot of gossip about us being a gay couple. But – we are a gay couple, so I don’t see it as gossip. A farmer from the area once came to us to tell that he was gay too, but that nobody could know. He was very happy to be able to tell someone. I think that maybe the town wouldn’t change that much if he would come out a lot of resistance is only imagined. Still: it’s not to me to judge that situation.
“I received some criticism on the story of &ME, because a gay man chooses to be with a woman. As if he goes back into the closet! Some people became aggressive, told me that gays should be proud. That word, ‘should’, makes me nervous. Why do people accept that people turn gay at a later age, but not the other way around? My primary goal is to tell a story, and stories are not always socially beneficial. That’s how I see it.”
&ME is showing in Dutch and Belgian cinemas from March 14th. A Dutch version of this article appears in the April 2013 edition of Expreszo Magazine.
(Source of pictures used for the article: www.cineart.nl/)
Hailing from Groningen, Albert writes about the student body of the Euroculture programme. His academic interests lie in the fields of (sub)cultural studies, music science, sociology, and gender and queer studies. In his spare time, Albert likes writing and singing mediocre songs, walking through typhoons, making video blogs and getting stuck in difficult yoga positions.