For Dutch filmmaker Vincent Boy Kars, film and life are inseparable. As millennials, he and his friends grew up with cameras and in Drama Girl he tries to revise someone’s past by dramatising it.
Concept first, protagonist second. That’s how Dutch filmmaker Vincent Boy Kars creates his films. For Drama Girl the concept was to re-enact certain personal tragedies, to see if that would help bring closure. As a protagonist, he cast Leyla, a young woman who had had similar experiences to his own. And he cast high-profile Dutch actors Pierre Bokma and Elsie de Brauw, as Leyla’s parents, and Jonas Smulders, as her ex-boyfriend.
Although Kars prefers to call his work ‘films’, they are no doubt documentaries, as the re-enactments are always presented as such. The scenes are discussed, before and after, and sometimes we get to see different takes. We even hear Kars shout “action!” and “stop!” from behind the camera. There is never any doubt that the actors are, indeed, actors. It’s their confrontation with Leyla, who, although re-enacting her own scenes, is clearly not an actor, that forms the heart of the concept.
Vincent Boy Kars (1990) has conceded that his conceptual approach has been influenced by reality TV, especially the Dutch Big Brother series (starting 1999) – one of Holland’s major TV exports. But Kars doesn’t just put his subjects together in a room or on an island; his concepts are always filmic in nature.
For My First Porn Film (2016), he asked two of his friends to shoot their first porn film. Although that porno was never finished (at least partially because of a squeaking bed), in the TV series Vieze film (‘Dirty Movie’, 2017), created for Dutch broadcaster VPRO, the three filmmakers who accepted Kars’ challenge did complete their porn shorts, which were consequently broadcast on national TV. Kars’ focus was on the process, and on the filmmakers’ doubts and insecurities.
In Independent Boy (2017), Kars’ first feature-length project, he temporarily assumed control of the life of a friend with motivational issues, telling him where to go and what to do. In other words, he approached his friend’s life as if it were a film that could be scripted, cast, and directed.
Sophomore feature Drama Girl re-enacts tragic moments in Leyla’s life, in which she can change how she acted and spoke, hoping these fictionalised inserts can become as important to her as her real life.
In the first case, life gets treated as film; in the second case, film gets treated as life. In both cases, the most important question to Kars is not what happens with the protagonist, but if the approach works at all. “The process is the story,” as Kars puts it.
Kars has no qualms presenting himself as a spokesperson for ‘his generation’, the millennials. It’s the first generation that grew up with the ubiquitous presence of cameras in everyday life. Kars believes this has changed how they view film. Not as something separate from life, an outside force that reflects on it, but as an integral constituent part. In which case, the difference between being and acting largely disappears. Life, including film, simply becomes ‘being with a camera’.
But creating a film project, and getting people to agree to a set of rules, offers specific opportunities, of course. For Kars, it’s a way to go deeper into issues than everyday conversations allow for. It’s a way of living through film.
That approach is much helped by his casting of friends as his protagonists: the level of trust they share, plus similar general attitudes to life, make the films into collaborative projects – Kars himself is, as he emphasizes in interviews, as much the subject of his films as his protagonists. Demonstrating this equality, he always finds a moment to put himself inside the frame, next to his protagonist.
In Drama Girl, however, he cast an unknown for the first time, as none of his friends had suffered the same specific misfortunes Kars was looking for. Unlike Independent Boy’s protagonist Metin, with Leyla, we don’t get to know much about her reasons to participate, and what, exactly, is at stake for her. She lost her father, and had a difficult break-up with her boyfriend, among other things, but her motivations remain largely implicit. Does she have unresolved issues, and does she believe re-enacting them will help her, or does she just want to help Kars resolve his? Or does she participate mostly out of curiosity?
“I have no specific questions, so how can I ever find any answers?” she counters Kars at one point. And when she protests during filming that she doesn’t, now, feel sad about the death of her father, Kars presses her to re-enact the scene with sadness anyway.
Unlike Metin, who continuously put his own views, questions, and doubts forward, Leyla seems less like a co-creator and more like a test subject for Kars’ conceptual research project. Indeed, it’s those moments when Leyla resists her preassigned role, that – as Kars agrees – her presence is actually felt most forcefully and she seems most herself.
Which, indirectly, can be seen as a form of resistance against the basic assumption behind all Kars’ projects, namely that film and life are part of a continuum. Which makes one even more curious about the concept behind Kars’ next project – announced as the third and final part of his coming-of-age trilogy on Dutch millennials.