In Berlinale Forum selection Victoria, directed by Flemish filmmakers Sofie Benoot, Liesbeth De Ceulaer and Isabelle Tollenaere and sold by Filmotor, we encounter a latter-day pioneer, Lashay, who has left behind a grim past in LA in favour of a new life in the desert town of California City.
California City is a mysterious place, designed 60 years ago to rival the sprawling LA just two hours drive away, separated by a mountain range. But the city was never finished, nor was it ever adequately populated and the roads that were actually laid were constructed out of an inferior substance which quickly degenerated, with the result that the desert has by and large taken over.
Yes, it may have a golf course, a prison, and a population just shy of 14,000, but it is an alien place where tumbleweed blows and where water hydrants expel water like geysers.
All of which means that for the pioneering Lashay it is like a new frontier, one in which he can create a new life as well as apply a whole new naming structure to its roads and features. At the same time he attends adult school (he is 26 by the film’s end) where he hope to graduate, and he holds down a job maintaining the ever-diminishing streets. He is funny, charming and articulate, and keeps a diary (at the request of the filmmakers) from which he narrates throughout the film.
“This first time that we met him [Lashay] I remember him being very charming,” comments De Ceulaer. “All three of us after that meeting said that he really has something. He invited us to his house and we talked more and he grew on us … and we thought we can really work with this guy, we can really build this movie together. We kind of had this idea in mind of someone coming from LA and leaving a certain past behind and starting anew in California City”
The idea for the project started with an anecdote, the filmmakers say, and it also builds on a small segment from Sofie Benoot’s earlier mosaic film Desert Haze (2014) about US deserts, on which the two other directors assisted. “California City was featured, but for a few minutes only,” says De Ceulaer. “Each of us individually felt that this could be the start of a film on its own, but then somehow we decided maybe we should make this film together.”
“Making a film in general is a difficult thing to do, and with three people it is very difficult but at the same time it has its benefits,” comments co-director Tollenaere, noting how she took on camera duties while De Ceulaer handled the sound. “It’s so nice to actually be able to share this journey that you normally you do alone…I would have an idea and Sofie and Liesbeth would say ‘it’s ok but maybe we can do this’, and in the end we would end up with something better.”
Victoria took six years to complete, with a timeline consisting of three periods of intensive research and three shooting periods, during which the story of Lashay began to take prominence. How did the end result therefore compare to their original concept?
“In the beginning I think it was way more about the city itself… but we never wanted to make an actual portrait of the city,” answers De Ceulaer. “The place was the starting point… We were three directors and there were many directions that we took in the beginning, many paths to explore. But if I look back at it now, the movie that it has become stayed pretty much true to the ideas that we had in the beginning, but then there was no way that we could envisage the strange line that we took.”
Adds Tollenaere: “We were looking for something new, a new language between the three of us. I think this took a long time to develop but during the second and third periods of shooting we were very prepared in the sense that we knew where the film was going.”
And did the project put a strain on their friendship, or on their working relationship? “We started with the three of us and we finished with the three of us, and during the project we really had a long time to get closer and to understand each other’s talent and sensitivities,” concludes De Ceulaer.