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THE INDIE EYE

Director Christophe Van Rompaey waited to take his best shot

The romantic comedy 'Moscow, Belgium' hails from a country that produces few movies.

February 08, 2009|Susan King

To become a successful filmmaker in Belgium, one must have an undying passion for movies, unwavering perseverance, luck and a good day job -- even more so than in the U.S.

"After five years, most people find something else to do because they can't make a living," said Christophe van Rompaey, who waited a decade before getting a chance to direct his first feature, "Moscow, Belgium," which opens Feb. 20 at the Nuart Theatre.

"I come from a very small territory," said Van Rompaey on a recent visit to Los Angeles. "We only made two or three movies a year in Belgium up to five years ago. Now that's risen to approximately 10 movies. There are like 200 directors, so it's basically, 'Take a number and wait.' "

Van Rompaey hails from the Flemish region of Belgium, population 10.7 million and divided into two parts, each with a separate government and entertainment industry -- 59% of the country is Flemish; 31%, in the south, speak French. (The remaining 10% are in the capital region of Brussels, a bilingual metropolis.)

While writing scripts and making short films in his free time, Van Rompaey worked as a casting director, assistant director and TV director until he got the chance to make "Moscow, Belgium." The award-winning May-December romantic comedy centers on a love affair between an estranged fortysomething wife (Barbara Sarafian) with three children and a charming, twentysomething divorced truck driver (Jurgen Delnaet) trying to keep drinking and anger issues at bay.

Though it's not on most maps, Moscow, Belgium, is a working-class area of the port town of Ghent.

"It's not a big area; it's almost a square mile," said Van Rompaey. "It was called Moscow because during the wars against Napoleon there were Russian soldiers based there."

The film came about thanks to a years-long friendship between Van Rompaey and Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem, the movie's co-writer and producer. "He produces the more commercially viable films in Belgium," Van Rompaey said. "We have been trying to find something to do together for years."

But over that time, the ideas Van Rijckeghem proposed were too commercial for Van Rompaey. "The ones I proposed to him -- he said it's too dark and too difficult," the director said.

Then one night the producer called him about the first draft of "Moscow, Belgium." The idea clicked with Van Rompaey.

"It's a nice balance between the two of us," he said. "It's not a 'ha-ha' comedy. But it's not dark or depressing."

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Ready to go

Surprisingly, it didn't take long to get "Moscow, Belgium" into production, because a system was developed in the country two years ago between the government film fund, a TV studio and private money to help young, first-time filmmakers make their feature debuts on a low budget.

"They had this committee and you could hand them dossiers about your project," Van Rompaey explained. "There were like 120 projects submitted and finally, over a period of two years' time, 12 films were made with this system. A lot of the [directors] were like me, waiting and wanting to make a first film. This system resulted in very diverse films -- there was a thriller, a horror film, a comedy."

Still, he acknowledged, the expectations for these uniquely funded films were not high. "Especially this one," he said. "The TV station and the distribution company that were attached were a bit hesitant about me choosing unknown actors and me being an unknown director. . . .

"They didn't plan a big release. They said it's going to be a local release and then we'll see what happens. It has been a word-of-mouth process."

In the end, he added, in Belgium, "we were No. 1 at the box office."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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