Augustijnen blurs boundaries between history and art

Yale School of Art hosted a screening of the Belgian documentary, “Spectres.”
Yale School of Art hosted a screening of the Belgian documentary, “Spectres.” Photo by Jacob Geiger.

To engage with the growing trend of incorporating history into art, the Yale School of Art hosted a screening of Belgian filmmaker Sven Augustijnen’s atypical documentary “Spectres.”

Set in Belgium and the Congo, Augustijnen’s work delves into the uncertainty surrounding the assassination of a newly independent Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, on Jan. 17, 1961. By retracing Lumumba’s steps during his final few days alongside interviews with parties ranging from the Belgium government to Lumumba’s family, Augustijnen said the style of the film — which focuses heavily on one individual’s subjective view of history — adds an unusual dimension to the telling of history. School of Art Dean Robert Storr said that “Spectres” is indicative of a younger generation of artists’ attempt to understand history’s depth through filmmaking by merging content with camerawork, setting and location. Mathew Muturi-Kioi ART ’13 explained that Augustijnen achieved the heightened emotional effect of combining these two approaches, adding that the documentary was unique in that it was almost entirely filmed by hand.

Augustijnen said he chose to follow Sir Jacques Brassine de la Buissière, a former resident of the Congo who has spent his life researching Lumumba’s assassination, for the bulk of the film, adding that de la Buissière is “obsessed by the story, obsessed by pushing it to the ends.”

This focus on telling one man’s story evokes the common artistic motif of portraiture that helps frame the single event of the assassination as a narrative, contributing to Augustijnen’s ability to express its historical significance, Muturi-Kioi said.

But while the technique of portraiture could be interpreted as limiting, Storr said that it actually provides the audience with an in-depth look at the “murkiness and selectivity of history.”

“Spectres” explored this uncertainty not just in its individualizing technique but also in its use of setting and location to establish the divide between the characters in the film and the topics it explores. The opening sequence of the film depicts de la Buissière and his wife visiting the Count and Countess Arnoud d’Aspremont Lynden at their Belgian estate, which is reminiscent of homes during the peak of European aristocracy. While sitting in splendid luxury ­­— the extent of which Augustijnen said surprised most Belgians when “Spectres” premiered in Belgium — de la Buissière and Count Lynden discuss the assassination of Lumumba. Storr added that the film exhibited the filmmaker’s skill by “showing you how people who are intimately connected with that event deal with it and evade full responsibility for it.”

Moreover, the openness of Augustijnen’s filming style, which Storr described as “allowing the camera to tell lots of things,” tackles de la Buissière’s attempt to break down the controversy of which government officials, both in Belgium and the Congo, took an active role in the assassination.

Augustijnen’s previous work over the last decade includes the films l’Ecole des Pickpockets, Le Guide du Parc, Francois and Une Femme Entreprenante.

Comments