The unique scenario of a ‘reserve job auction’ acts as a microcosm for growing tensions across Europe in Olivier Magis and Fedrik De Beul’s short film May Day.
The two filmmakers join us on Close-up Culture to talk about their Oscar-shortlisted film, economic frustrations in Europe, capturing different perspectives, and much more.
Q: ‘May Day’ is a timely film that strikes at universal themes. How did you come up with the unique concept of this film and the ‘reserve job auction’?
A: It all started with one of our neighbors in Brussels, Javier, an independent newspaper deliveryman. In a casual conversation, he expressed his enormous fatigue: his relentless 6 days-a-week night job had worn him down to the point of total exhaustion.
“But how to find someone who is willing to work for a low salary? Because hiring someone is expensive: I’ll be left with next to nothing. After all these years of hard work, to end up like this…” Sad-eyed, musing over a coffee, he blurted: “Oh, maybe I should just auction the job off and hire the person who agrees to the lowest salary. That way I would still have some money left to live off”.
Javier, the deliveryman, never acted on it, but we knew at once this was the perfect starting point for a tragicomedy stating painful truths about our lives today. To secure the authenticity, we suggested to Javier to write the screenplay together.
Q: Economic frustrations are at the route of a lot of the tensions we are seeing across Europe. What is your assessment of the current landscape? Do you think things have changed much since you made he film?
A: In our country, Belgium, many political parties fuel tension between communities using on the issue of work, and its corollary, unemployment. It is not uncommon to hear – and this isn’t a new phenomenon, far from it – that the Walloons are born lazybones, living off the Flemish hard workers. Unfortunately, this divide seems universal.
This rhetoric around the question of work, and the instrumentalization of an antagonism between those who work – the “deserving” – and “those who are nothing”, appears also in speeches of other European politicians. French President Emmanuel Macron played this card, and let us know he appreciates the German system of precarious “mini-jobs” – is it any wonder we are still in the midst of the latest crisis known as that of the “yellow vests”?
Work has become (even more) paradoxical because those who work suffer more and more, and those who do not work suffer from not working.
The recent migration crisis in Europe has exacerbated this issue, and revived old mechanisms of racial stigma and exclusion.
It also is a crisis of representation: more and more people (workers whose incomes are eroding, retired people in precarious situations, the unemployed…) no longer feel represented by this political world that seems disconnected from reality. Their demonstrations are wake-up calls.
We brought together these issues in the film’s script in order to offer a range of reflections and identifications to the audience. We wanted to extend the debate through cinema.
In conclusion, since we shot May Day, the situation has indeed changed. Dissatisfaction has come to the streets and, in a new development, became popular, uncontrollable, spontaneous, without a specific political, trade union related or associative colour.
Q: How did you work out the different perspectives in the film? Were the characters based on general observations or taken from people you know?
A: Brussels is an ethnically very diverse, cosmopolitan city, strangely enough poor (of the top 10 of poorest municipalities in Belgium, 7 are in Brussels – which counts 19 municipalities) although it hosts the European institutions, powerful multinationals, lobbies, etc.
We wanted the range of characters to be representative of this reality, while remaining faithful to the profiles one would meet during a real job interview for this kind of delivery job.
It was important for us that each character is unique, and that the spectators could recognise themselves in one or more of these complex profiles, even without any knowledge of their “backstory”. The general idea was to create characters who are not Manichean: there are no villains, and no victims. Everyone suffers, and everyone is an accomplice in this sick auction game.
If we have to summarise our character composition work, we can say that we worked by mixing real observation with people we know personally, adding our personal experiences and those of the casting. We organised this casting on the basis of improvisations, which also helped us to rewrite the script.
Q: How did you work with the actors to create the tense atmosphere of the film? I imagine the tight space helped.
A: The tight space helped indeed, as did the hot summer temperatures.
Above all, very long takes contributed to create honest exchanges and real tensions. You could feel the electricity in the air.
The acting was our top priority: to get authentic performances and real exchanges, everything revolved around the actors, including the filming process. In the mornings we would just rehearse. Once it felt right, we shot what we absolutely needed using two cameras.
During the time that was left at the end of the shooting days, the actors could improvise (within the boundaries of their character and the script) without any pressure. More than half of what you actually see on screen comes from these improvisations.
The cameramen had to adopt a documentary approach, meaning that they shoot by intuition, reacting as if they didn’t know what was going to happen next.
Q: I imagine this is a film that would draw interesting and personal audience reactions. Have you had any notable responses to the film at festivals?
A: The film was received with great enthusiasm, both by the audience and by members of the festival juries, from Warsaw to New York, Sao Paolo, Madrid, Seoul and Beirut.
After the screenings, in general, two – usually quite emotional – reactions came back very often: “This film could have been made here.” or “You should do a Korean/Polish/… remake here, because we recognise so much of ourselves in your film!”
At first, we were very surprised by this kind of reaction, especially since the origin of the project was to make a film that would allow us to kick the ants in the ants of Belgian society and its tensions.
Q: Can you tell us more about your collaboration as directors and your dynamic working together?
A: In order to work efficiently, we divided the work. Fedrik has directed the technical crew and Olivier directed the actors and the whole postproduction. But through continuous spontaneous feedback, this never felt like a strict regime. For two years, every decision was made as a team.
Q: The film has been showing at festivals since 2017 and is now going to the Oscars. How special has this journey been for you?
Considering the raw documentary aesthetics of this oddly paced 22-minute conversation piece in French, with never-ending subtitles, we’re still wondering if the selection in the Oscars’ short list is real.
Q: What does the future hold for you both?
A: We might work together on other projects in the near future, but nothing has been decided yet. It’ll also depend on which projects get financed first.
Olivier: I’ve just finished a documentary which I have been working on for four years. It tells the story of the Chagossian people, who were secretly deported from their islands by the British authorities to let the US Army set up a huge military base.
Now I intend to write a feature film, based on the same issues as those in May Day. Europe, as well as other countries, faces social challenges and political turmoil. In my opinion film authors must pay attention to these topics, and try to translate them into films, which are direct conversations with the audience. In conclusion, I’d like to defend a socially engaged independent cinema.
Fedrik: I have a very diverse set of projects (including short and long documentaries, and two feature films) in different stages of development (writing & research).
I have always combined film with a day job as a language & job coach, and will be launching an innovative mobile language learning app soon. Encounters with interested and interesting producers, and reactions of funding committees will decide what happens next on the film front. Hard to predict the future, but it’ll be creative, that’s for sure!