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The Barefoot Emperor


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TIFF 2019: The Barefoot Emperor

Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens had no intention of following up on their 2016 feature King of the Belgians. But they did, and now The Barefoot Emperor is selected for TIFF 2019.

Marvel and Disney may turn out sequels by the barrowload, but in the world of "delicate art house" cinema they are rare. "A sequel - it is dangerous territory because the singularity of each film has to be honoured and sequels tend to try to capitalise on something and to profit. That is very far from our palette of intentions... It didn't occur to us" says Woodworth.

Back in 2016 King of the Belgians, a satirical comedy/road movie, imagined the Belgian king travelling abroad when Wallonia (the French part of Belgium) declares independence. With a dogged British journalist in tow, the fictional Nicolas III (Peter Van den Begin) tries to make his way home - but it proves a very fraught journey.

Woodworth and Brosens had shot a scene in Bulgaria during the making of King of the Belgians in which the king was shot down by a Belgian sniper in chaotic circumstances similar to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 - the event that sparked The First World War. In the end, the scene, the most complex moment in the movie, didn't make it into the final edit. Nevertheless, it helped inspire The Barefoot Emperor (a Flemish/Dutch co­pro supported by the Netherlands Film Fund).

A few days before the filmmakers headed off to Venice for the world premiere of King of the Belgians, the directors went for an impromptu holiday to Istria, in Croatia. They were staying in the industrial port town of Rijeka where they noticed a big, rusty ship. They asked the waiter if they were allowed to go aboard this vessel. No, they were told. This was the old Yugoslavian dictator Tito's ship and access was forbidden. However, the waiter suggested they visit Tito's island instead. The idea immediately appealed. "We are both obsessed with dictators of all types," Woodworth says. "They write history, and we are surrounded by so many pompous fools right now."

The duo set off to the Brijuni islands. This was where President Tito spent his summers and it was full of eerie, often bizarre reminders of when he ruled the Balkans, for example an elephant that was presented to Tito by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s - and is still just about alive at the venerable age of 53. "Everything was completely strange but in a fantastic way," Woodworth recalls. She and Brosens began to think it might be worth making a second film about the Belgian king - one set in a sanatorium on Tito's island where the fragile monarch is recovering from a gunshot to the ear.

When they told the lead actors back in 2016 of their plans to resurrect the king, the actors reacted with dismay, telling them it was a terrible idea. Nonetheless, King of the Belgians received such an enthusiastic response in Venice and on the festival circuit that they soon changed their minds.

The new film is about more than just the king. It touches on the rise of nationalism (reflecting the recent gains of the far right Vlaams Belang in the Belgian elections) and the social and political fissures in modern day Europe. If King of the Belgians was about a road trip, its successor (says Woodworth) is "a trippy thing without a road."

King of the Belgians received huge enthusiasm on the festival circuit. Bizarrely, no Belgian distributor would release it. Brosens and Woodworth therefore did the job themselves. Thankfully, local distributors seem far keener on The Barefoot Emperor, which will be released by Lumiere in February 2020. The next 6 months will be spent preparing the local launch. "We really want to bring it outside the cinephile circuit and into institutions and schools. We want to nourish dialogue. That's the whole point!"

SEE NL Magazine #36 September 2019 / Locarno - Venice - Toronto - Netherlands Film Festival Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.



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