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“Ghost Tropic” reevaluates our relationship to city and space

Bas Devos’ latest feature, available virtually through MMoCA’s Spotlight Cinema on Oct 14, bridges the gap between “kitchen sink” social drama and the avant-garde.

While supplies last, free viewing links will also be available to MMoCA members.

Films that position cities as central characters rarely interrogate the roles humans have in shaping those environments. Interpreting the social issue-parable style of fellow Belgian filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, writer-director Bas Devos has created a more morally nuanced brand of film in Ghost Tropic (2019) by requiring viewers to consider the subtleties of what humans contribute to the character of a city-space. Like the average Dardenne protagonist, Ghost Tropic’s Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb) is constantly affected by class, race, and gender; but Devos lets these encounters occur in a more removed setting where choice has less effect on one’s lived reality than on the broader moral identity of the space they occupy.

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The film follows the nighttime journey of Muslim cleaner Khadija, who misses her train stop and must travel through the outskirts of Brussels to get back to her apartment. As she runs into the night’s various strangers, her interactions take on a parable-like quality with each exchange involving an altruism or moral choice that determines the paths of others she’s met.  Not just a passive receiver of others’ kindness or misgivings, Khadija has her own commitments tested when she happens upon a dying homeless man. This moral centerpiece of Ghost Tropic is instructive for its even-handedness: Khadija is both object and subject of giving. The main complications along Khadija’s travels are not obstacles to her safe return home, but rather the things that convince her to take detours of her own accord.

During the film’s opening still, in which the sun’s natural light wanes in a living room in real time, Devos includes a monologue from Khadija waxing about the nature of the space as she speaks of the “relentless task” of filling a space with your life. While the exertion of the self on a landscape is necessary for that space to attain a sense of belonging, the film reminds viewers of the constant effort required to make spaces our own. Devos focuses on how physical spaces retain layers of memory from those who occupy them; and, in the case of Khadija’s journey, he parses out the individuals that form the collective consciousness of the city-as-character while juxtaposing those portraits with images of the city’s marginal buildings. Therefore, its slowness is not borne from an antagonism towards narrative but an interiority and generosity towards its characters.

While Khadija’s night forces her to contemplate moral quandaries, her dissociation from her city has an implacable quality. Much as they may be for the average American viewer, these locations in Brussels’ outskirts are unknown to her. She is both learning and imposing on the identity of her city by living in it in real time. Ghost Tropic hauntingly interrogates this problem of cinematic synecdoche— given that a city symphony or portrait is always going to be partially comprised of people who deviate from that character, intentionally or not, the city cannot ever be truly represented. Even in stillness, it is challenged, changed, explored, and settled. For all its qualities, Devos’ film should be seen if only for its ability to bridge the gap between avant-garde landscape cinema and “kitchen sink” social drama; and he achieves a masterful balance of formalism and humanity that effectively straddles the demands of both genres to create a detailed portrait of both a city and those who inhabit it.

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