• CNAP Award  
  • Flash Competition


Lisa Spilliaert

In Spilliaert, we joyfully rediscover a taste for the interwoven mix of genres that captivated us in N.P (FID 2020). Lisa Spilliaert uses the pretext of an investigation into her potentially shared roots with Léon Spilliaert, the great master of Belgian Symbolism, in order to combine a brief, but lively portrait of the painter with an approach which is sensitive to his work, with a joyful meditation on notions
of heritage and lineage, all set to the rhythm of her own rap music. Since its inception, rap has been a way of revindicating identity and here, Lisa Spilliaert seizes her opportunity to do so literally and joyfully. The film opens with a bust shot of her, surrounded by works of art, paintings and sculptures, her determined gaze fixed on the camera as she raps furiously. Her words hit the air with the same vehement self-affirmation as the paintings of the man who shares her initials, and the same surname, while the camera lingers on the motifs beloved of the painter. The director integrates traditional biographical interviews, documentary material – archives and documents generated as part of her genealogical research – employing a sensual, detailed approach using close-ups of works by Léon Spilliaert and the oblong forms of sculptures by her own sister. In counterpoint to the visual marriage of these two pictorial and sculptural materials, a descendant of the painter comments on the voice-over on his intimate relationship with his great-grandfather’s work. The genealogists announce their verdict: if the criterion used is a family tree Lisa and Léon are not related. However, the heart of the film affirms that there is a common trunk which unites the painter and the filmmaker like two branches reaching out in the same direction – towards art.
(Claire Lasolle)

Interview with Lisa Spilliaert

As mentioned in the film, the first request to investigate your origins and possible descent from the Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) dates back to 2014. At what point did you decide to turn this research into a film?

Growing up in Japan with the surname Spilliaert was both normal and strange to me. As a child, I was barely aware of the existence of the renowned Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert. After the major retrospective of his work in Tokyo in 2003, when I was a teenager, I started to wonder who he actually was. Within our family, nobody knew if we were really “related”. After moving to Belgium, almost everyone I met asked me if I was “related”. The issue became even more pressing when I started carving my own way as an artist. I became more curious about the “truth”, spurred on by my interest in genealogy. In 2014, I went to Familiekunde Vlaanderen in Ostend to start a family-tree research project. Building on my previous works, I have broadened my fascination with genealogy to include the constructed legitimate identity, more specifically the phenomenon of the family tree. This seemingly romantic activity of hobbyists demonstrates the comical yet creative aspect of consanguinity. What to project onto these findings? I am interested in this very unstable emotion, beyond mere romanticisation.

The narrative structure of the film is based on a series of rap songs. Why did you choose this medium? And how did you work on their composition and interpretation?

It is a way of striking the right note and raising delicate issues in a respectful way, without lapsing into satire.
The culture and tradition of hip hop is keeping with the concept of identity, origin and autobiography. By contrasting hip hop’s free identity construction with the strictly regulated structure of genealogy, I aim to give this film its own voice. The raps provide the storyline with the proper rhythmic variation. This way, I also try to “dust off” the old archival themes of family trees and kinship. The raps came about in close collaboration with rapper/producer NAG aka Benjamin Hertoghs. As my ‘ghost writer’ I gave him themes and words that he constructed into rhymes. Afterwards he taught how to deliver the raps, gave me hints towards the correct flow, and recorded me in his studio. Also the beats are produced by him (it helps very much that he is a sound designer on top). So big shout out to NAG!

Alongside your character, we hear in voice-over the testimony of an “anonymous descendant” of Spilliaert. How did you conceive his presence?

The descendant made it very clear from the beginning that he wished to not be filmed. He did, however, agree to an audio recorded interview. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His very personal stories shed an unusual perspective on Léon Spilliaert, and his invisibility makes them hard to grasp. The juxtaposition of his voice and the paintings adds a layer of magical realism to the film. It’s difficult to assess for the viewer who he actually is and if his stories are true. A spectral, material witness of sorts.

Parallel to the investigation in the archives, the camera, through frontal shots, tracking shots and close-ups, seems to search Spilliaert’s works and their textures for some kind of evidence. Could you tell us how you approached Spilliaert’s drawings?

It was never my intention to make an art historical film on the artist Léon Spilliaert, although I do hope the film will trigger renewed interest in his work. In a way I use the paintings as source material for collage-like edits that contrast or reverberate the narration of the descendant. In using the close-ups, I also wanted to play with the supposed familial closeness, the ‘real’ one of the descendants, and the ‘constructed’ one of myself.

In addition to Spilliaert’s works, the camera takes the same approach to explore a sculpture created by your sister Clara (whom we had already seen in the leading role in your previous film, N.P, presented at FID in 2020). What led you to make this choice?

Clara Spilliaert co-authored our first short film Hotel Red Shoes (2013) and co-wrote the first version of the script for Spilliaert in 2014. For this film she made an artistic interpretation of the rich history of representing family trees and its symbolics. This explosion of images takes the form of a group of large ceramic sculptures. Ornate and romanticism, voluptuous baroque gradually contrasting with the content of the rap about genealogy. I admire Clara both as my sister and as a visual artist, I am very happy with her contribution.

Interview by Marco Cipollini

  • CNAP Award  
  • Flash Competition

Technical sheet

Belgium / 2022 / Colour / 26’

Original version : dutch, french
Subtitles : english
Script : Lisa Spilliaert.
Photography : Hans Bruch Jr.
Editing : Lisa Spilliaert, Vincent Stroep
Music : Benjamin Hertoghs.
Sound : senstudio (Sound edit, mix)
Casting : Wim De Busser, Lisa Spilliaert

Production : Ulrike Lindmayr, Vincent Stroep (Escautville).

Filmography :
N.P, 2020
Growth Record, 2014 -ongoing
Hotel Red Shoes, 2013.