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HERE at the Berlinale

Awarded Best Film by the Encounters Jury at the 2023 Berlinale, as well as the FIPRESCI Prize at the festival, Bas Devos’s HERE is set in Brussels and grounded in its peculiar environment. Stefan Gota plays a Romanian construction worker, also named Stefan, getting ready to leave Brussels possibly for good until he meets a bryologist named Shuxiu, played by Liyo Gang who generally works as a film editor, studying urban moss. Their connection grounds each of the characters.

Liyo Gang in HERE © Erik De Cnodder

We attended the film’s world premiere at the Berlinale on March 19. After the screening, in response to a question about imagining the characters and defining their professions, Devos said that his interest in moss began when “I stumbled upon reading book after book after book, getting deeper into the whole of the micro-cosmos. Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a famous American bryologist, wrote a book called Gathering Moss. For people who are very unscientific, like me, it is a beautiful way of thinking about our connection to the natural world. She explains so beautifully how [moss], being the first plant on land, how it is directly linked to us—it is the beginning of life. [She also explains] how it has survived climate crises, ice ages, and it’s still there seemingly unchanged. She asks the simple question: how come? What can we learn from this small plant? And of course, her answer is as simple as it is beautiful. She says: it’s a plant that gives more back to its environment than it takes. This stuck with me as such a simple but beautiful lesson. Then I met Geert Raeymaekers who is a Belgian bryologist and he taught me about these small plants. All of this slowly started to connect somehow to the image I had in my head of Stefan and the image of the character that Liyo plays. They came alive through a lot of these ideas.” With gorgeous camerawork, HERE stays close to the earth and topology of Brussels, periodically zooming in on the micro-forests that beds of moss reveal themselves to be under magnification. In the credits, Raeymaekers is thanked as the “set bryologist.”

Bas Devos © Erik De Cnodder

In addition to the visual aspects of science, HERE explores its pedagogy. The character of Shuxiu, in addition to being a researcher, is also a teacher. At one point in the film, she asks her students to propose and present new biological entities. At the same March 19 Q&A, Devos acknowledged reading about “speculative fabulation—coming up with creative ways of thinking about scientific issues. Then I was speaking with Janice Glime who is the world authority on mosses in the U.S. and wrote a book called Bryophyte Ecology, which is very important, standard work. I told her that I was imagining students in a classroom imagining organisms, and asked, is that something that sounds realistic? And she was like, yeah, that’s something I do with my students; they have to use biological processes to come up with something that does not exist but could exist. I found this really interesting because all of a sudden science and imagination start to mingle and that opens this whole different way of looking at science.” Devos’s use of science and plant biology in HERE goes beyond metaphor. His obvious curiosity about the subject matter is visible throughout the film, making each character’s passion resonate, particularly in the scenes when they are discovering old moss anew.

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