By BY BILL BROWNSTEIN, THE GAZETTE, Montreal
Hans Van Nuffel is in a holding pattern. He is set to fly back to Belgium, but he is also being advised that his stay back home in his native Antwerp could be brief, that his attendance could well be required on Monday evening at Place des Arts.
That's when and where the official awards ceremony for the Montreal World Film Festival takes place. Van Nuffel is being touted as one of the favourites for best director and best motion picture for his compelling feature-film debut Oxygen. And Stef Aerts, in his feature-film debut, is emerging as a strong bet for best actor honours as the flick's lead.
Since its screenings in official festival competition last weekend, Oxygen has generated tremendous buzz among audiences and critics alike.
So much so that, by popular demand, an additional screening -rare for a flick in competition -has been added Monday morning at 10 a.m. at the Quartier Latin.
Oxygen is the uncompromising story of a young man, Tom (Aerts), trying to grapple with ever-debilitating cystic fibrosis. Tom doesn't complain, despite the fact he spends much of his time in a hospital room, hooked up to oxygen and meds and forever being probed by doctors. He waits, not that optimistically, for a lung transplant from a suitable donor in the hope it just might extend his life a few years.
What has struck so many viewers is the film's stark realism. It plays almost like a documentary as director Van Nuffel enters a world most are fortunate enough not to know.
That's not entirely accidental. Van Nuffel, 29, is also afflicted with cystic fibrosis and can well relate to the plight of his central character, with a death sentence hanging over him.
"My case is more mild, but there are no guarantees at all," Van Nuffel calmly says at festival headquarters in the lobby bar of the downtown Hyatt hotel. "The fact of the matter is that the average life span for most cystic fibrosis patients is about 24, and 70 per cent die before they reach 30.
"I'm not in line for a lung transplant now. But I could be in 10 or 15 years, or maybe just three years. Who knows? It's so hard to predict. I know my future is uncertain. So I have decided that it's best just to live with it and try to move on."
While the film sensitizes as well as disturbs, it never stoops to cheap sentiment. There is no self-pity among the leading players. It's much more about self-awareness.
Again, that's no accident. "I hate sentimentality in film," explains Van Nuffel, who had previously directed three acclaimed shorts. "It is simply not a useful emotion for film. Audiences also empathize much more with subjects who don't feel sorry for themselves."
Despite the gravity of the film, there is a certain black humour that permeates Oxygen. No accident, again.
"Melancholy mixed with laughter is part of the genetic makeup of Belgians," Van Nuffel cracks. "Our particular sense of humour comes from being citizens of a country of eternal compromise.
"That's why we are a pretty mellow people. We don't have high expectations, either. They could have thrown tomatoes at the screen for the showing of Oxygen here, and I wouldn't have been surprised."
But they didn't. Audiences simply stood on their feet at the end of one of the screenings and applauded loudly.
"Actually, that overwhelmed me," Van Nuffel allows. "I was prepared for the worst, not the best. That's my nature. Still, I'd rather not think about awards."
Instead, Van Nuffel is thinking about his next feature project, a thriller set in post-colonial Congo about a Belgian woman who falls in love with a Congolese man -both unaware of a strong connection that binds the two.
Van Nuffel jokes that much of the world associates Belgian cinema with "The Muscles from Brussels," Jean-Claude Van Damme -which is ironic since Mr. Muscles has almost nothing to do with the country's film industry.
"Belgian cinema is set to explode," Van Nuffel claims. "My hope is that it will grow exponentially until we take over the world. Hopefully, that will be in about 10 years.
"Unfortunately, Belgian cinema has been like a well-kept secret to so many -despite some great films that have emerged from there. Perhaps that is due to the fact that Belgian actors and filmmakers are not overly ambitious to go the Hollywood route. They are content to be big fish in small ponds."
And does that apply to Van Nuffel?
"No," the grinning director shoots back. "If I get a call today to come to Hollywood, I'm gone tomorrow."
That just may happen. Oxygen -shot for the relatively paltry sum of $2 million -opens in Belgium next week, and distributors from around the planet have been touching base of late with the film's producer, Dries Phlypo, about deals. "The film has touched a chord with almost everyone who has seen it," says Phlypo, 32.
"Hans has brought this story to a whole new level. It's not a film someone could make if they were not familiar with the disease. This is a film about real and honest emotions. There is nothing manufactured. There are no false notes."
Oxygen, in Flemish with English and French subtitles, shows Monday at 10 a.m. at Quartier Latin 9.
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