AUSTIN, Texas—Even for fans of experimental cinema, Night Has Come—a 56-minute black-and-white pandemic film made entirely of officially archived Belgian footage—may feel quite experimental. This is not a straightforward virus narrative along the lines of 28 Days Later.
But around 2014, Peter Van Goethem found himself in a very relatable position: the PhD student at the Free University of Brussels had been working on a big doctoral project for two years, yet now he felt stuck. Van Goethem’s original proposal centered on documenting Brussels’ evolution over the years—its modernization, its rise on the International scene, its sociopolitcal changes throughout the great wars—and he had done a lot of research. Working with the Royal Belgian Film Archive Cinematek, Van Goethem perused no fewer than 1,268 films to assess various archival content spanning avantgarde experiments, journalistic productions, educational films, propaganda, prior documentaries, and more.
But something just didn’t work. And Van Goethem couldn’t shake one particular thought, something he repeatedly lingered on while poring through the archives.
“After two years of analyzing footage, it became clear I wanted to do something else with the footage. The archive felt like a gatekeeper—they decide whose memory we’re talking about, they choose the selection of items you can find in the catalog,” he told Ars this fall. “So I didn’t want to make a documentary about the city of Brussels anymore, because there isn’t one history—there are many histories. I needed another approach to the footage, a way that decontextualized things. An archive decides not just what’s remembered, but what’s missed. I wanted to make a movie that could reflect that, a movie about how we use footage of the past and how we look at it.”
It took another handful of years, some understanding academic advisors, and money beyond what Van Goethem’s original educational research grant encompassed. But the resulting work not only helped Van Goethem complete his doctoral work, it eventually turned him into a bonafide first-time filmmaker. That’s because, after failing to get his PhD project into some local festivals, Van Goethem received an email seemingly out of the blue from a little event called Fantastic Fest. And this fall he found himself some 5,000-plus miles away from home to witness the world premiere of Night Has Come at the biggest genre film event in the US.
What’s going on here?
The basic premise of Night Has Come reveals itself quite slowly, as an unnamed narrator begins by seemingly reflecting on his life while struggling to connect the pieces. An old man appears, so things seem fine—age has a funny way of making memory hazy, after all. But a lot of the images don’t look like the type of thing you’d want to remember: people fleeing a damaged city, some kind of dust slowly engulfing an empty landscape, chaotic movement depicted on a cellular level. On top of this, the narrator’s musings become increasingly peculiar early on. “Everything is going to be fine, I say to myself. I have to trust the treatment.”
“In Brussels, our city changed a lot during my PhD,” Van Goethem explains. “It became about militarization and control—you had those terrorist attacks in France a couple of years ago, and there was also an attack at the airport in Brussels. The state started implementing rules like requiring your ID or placing military tanks in the streets. So I used footage of the past to create a future that reflects our present-day society. I also wanted a metaphor for the archive, so the memory of the guy reflects the archive itself. History is not chronological, it’s our memory—uncertain and unpure in a way. I wanted to deal with those kind of issues.”
Throughout Night Has Come, Van Goethem’s ideas become clearer and clearer but never overt. Some kind of memory-wiping pandemic may be sweeping the country, and the governmental science community responds through quarantines and antidote development… or has the government been spreading this condition, leveraging it to control what the population does and doesn’t remember of recent not-so-rosy history? On top of all that, the old man simultaneously wrestles again and again with what his life might be if it’s based on only partial memory. “The panic is that your life now consists solely of what you have forgotten,” he muses. The philosophical grappling of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets the Big Brother concerns of 1984 and gets presented through a distinct art house lens.
And make no mistake, Night Has Come definitely belongs wherever art house cinema gets housed today. When considering how Night Has Come came to be, Van Goethem’s creative exercise here seems downright daunting in its scope and miraculous in execution.
To start, think about how a film gets edited together—typically, a director has shot a finite amount of footage, all with intent behind the images and often with some larger sequences in mind. Van Goethem, by contrast, had an almost endless amount of raw material to work from. The only parameters around Night Has Come involved what he could and couldn’t secure the rights to use from the Belgian film archive.
“It involved a lot of trial and error, hundreds of cuts,” he tells Ars. “I had to really—I think for two years—edit, and it wasn’t going how I wanted. It’s like a brick puzzle—when one piece isn’t there, nothing works.”
Van Goethem worked with practically infinite puzzle pieces. Sometimes the themes and plot he imagined would drive his image selection; at other times some stunning visual would help direct where the filmmaker wanted the narration or plot to go next. And that’s merely the story and visuals; eventually Van Goethem needed to create a cohesive soundscape as well, since Night Has Come opted to eschew all original sound from the archival footage. “[Composer Guy Van Nueten] was trying to compose to what he was seeing, but I was always…’Sorry I can’t use that footage,’” Van Goethem adds. “You can make so many stories, there are so many hidden stories in the archive.”
Rightfully, then, this film repeatedly flexes its clever composition. A seemingly happy bit of archival footage may depict a couple walking in the woods toward a wind ensemble filling some scenic amphitheatre, but Night Has Come recontextualizes this visual to be downright sinister after Van Goethem has sequenced it among his archival finds and laid in an eerie soundtrack. Another memorable passage suggests that maybe this memory wiping ultimately does a society good—a sequence of intense, kinectic visuals of nothing but flashing entities (streets, cars, neon signs, a girl laughing as the camera zooms in uncomfortably close) plays out rapidly over a synth-y soundtrack that would make Trent Reznor proud. The freneticism of that whole thing makes it seem like life itself may be a disease in need of treatment for clarity. Van Goethem has somehow stitched together such disparate things—documentary footage of the city post-war, propaganda, seemingly random home videos of kids enjoying a lake—into a singular thought-provoking experiment, breathing new life into these archival bits that may have otherwise never even seen the light of day again.
One film fest begets others
Van Goethem quickly points out that this passion project only became possible through a lot of generosity. His PhD advisors said yes to a crazy idea. A lot of heavyweights in the Belgian film world—actor Johan Leysen (The American with George Clooney), writer Peter Verhelst, composer Van Nueten—donated their talents (some literally) because they liked the premise so much. He found inspiration in books he’d been reading (Empire, Tribalization) and in the work of Chris Marker, who famously made a short film out of old still photos that eventually inspired 12 Monkeys. And the film itself only saw the light of day because some genre diehards across the world so admired its ambition. Night Has Come hadn’t screened outside of a PhD jury before Fantastic Fest took a chance on programming it; Van Goethem has since booked his film at events like Gent Film Festival in Belgium and the International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film DOK Leipzig in Germany, one of Europe’s premiere documentary events.
So it may not have been easy and didn’t happen quickly, but this filmmaker certainly enjoys how his debut has worked out thus far. Van Goethem even hopes to make another film, though he’d advise against an entirely found-footage approach for the sanity of future filmmakers. For now, he’ll continue to take Night Has Come wherever he can to hopefully share his version of Belgian alternate history and provoke the same thought experiments for an audience that the Belgian inspired in him.
“It’s not easy to understand the movie when you see it the first time; you’ll leave with a lot of questions,” Van Goethem says. “It’s not always easy to tell what you’re looking at, but that’s the purpose. I didn’t want to give the answers; I wanted to raise questions. And if people see a different story, that’s OK to me… They would’ve never seen that footage—it’s just sitting in the archive. We need to rethink how we’re using this archived material and our history.”
Night Has Come continues to play the film festival circuit. New screenings can be found through the Facebook page for Inti Films.
Listing image by Peter Van Goethem / Fantastic Fest