By Koen Brams

Brussels, Pieces of Happiness
First broadcast: VRT 2, 09/05/1995, 22:45
Colour, 57’ 16”
Programme: Signs
Script: Rudi Laermans and Pieter ‘t Jonck
Texts: Louis-Paul Boon and Arlette Farge
Voice: Frank Vercruysse
Film clips (editing): Jozef De Bock and Danny Segers
Camera: Paul Snauwaert
Sound recording: Robert Van Humbeeck
Other collaborators: Adelin Peeters and Walter De Four
Music: George De Decker and Ward Weis
Musicians: André Goudbeek, Jos Steen and Rik Verstrepen
Sound mixing: Walter De Niel
Graphic design: Helga Boeye
Editing: Eddy Bergiers
Telecine: Raf Moreels
Assistant director: Eva Binnemans
Director: Jef Cornelis
Production: Rik Sauwen

Brussels, Pieces of Happiness is a complex film that broaches multiple subjects. On the one hand, it deals with the Brussels-Capital Region, while on the other hand it focuses explicitly on Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, one of the poorest of the nineteen municipalities that form the Brussels-Capital Region. The film thematizes both the flight of the native Belgians from the Brussels-Capital Region and the ghettoisation and impoverishment of Molenbeek. The film also sheds light on the customs and morals of the elderly native Belgians and the young foreigners. In addition to disconcerting images of contemporary life in Brussels and Molenbeek, a lot of old footage is shown of the demolition of the Brussels-North railway station (1956), the World’s Fair in Brussels (1958), the demolition of Brussels’ Northern Quarter (starting in 1967) and… the violent riots in Molenbeek (1991).

The film doesn’t just consist of images, but also of texts, borrowed from Louis-Paul Boon — who wrote The City of Brussels, a Jungle in 1946 — and the French historian Arlette Farge. Especially by recording fragments of Farge’s texts, Brussels, Pieces of Happiness also reflects on itself and more particularly on the handling of archive material: “It can be tempting to allow the archive documents to speak for themselves. The documents are often so surprising, both due to their beauty and the profundity of their meaning, that one would want to present them to the reader unedited, as they appear. […] Nevertheless, the belief that the naked presentation of the text guarantees truth or would not distort its meaning is an illusion. History cannot be reduced to simply digging up old texts and documents. Inevitably, history is a reflexive discourse. Each successive generation thinks about the past and expresses it in the light of new facts and themes”.

The critical views on man and urbanism articulated by Cornelis since 1966 in films such as Man and Conurbation (1966), Things that aren’t mentioned (1968), Building in Belgium (1971), The Street (1972), M’Zab, City Life in the Desert (1974) and Highway N°1 (1978), are further elaborated in a disturbing way in Brussels, Pieces of Happiness. The combination of the nonchalance with which contractor Charly De Pauw sealed the fate of the thousands of inhabitants of the Noordwijk neighbourhood (which was completely demolished in the late sixties), the hopelessness of the living conditions in the ghetto of Molenbeek in 1995 and the Belgians who have turned their back on their capital is absolutely bewildering.