Critique: Misère au Borinage (Misery In Borinage) by Ivens & Storck)

The Borinage is one of the most famous industrial region of Wallonia (and of the classic industrial revolution in general) because of its history of hard and long social strikes. For instance in 1932 when a strike lasted two month from 6 July to 4 September. Misère au Borinage is quoted as one of the  the most important political films in the history of the cinema (*). Robert Stallaerts wrote  in his Historical dictionary of Belgium about Storck one of the directors of Misère au Borinage: "Although a Fleming, he can be called the father of the Walloon cinema." (Scarecrow press, 1999, p. 191).

The Walloon cinema

A film was made in 1933 about this strike, by Joris Ivens and Henri Stork, a Dutch and a Fleming, but this film is sawn as the film founding the Walloon cinema. Some people say the same thing about Paul Meyer who made also a famous film in Borinage: The film director Paul Meyer, that founded the Walloon, cinema accompanies us through some films - Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre (1960), the film that founded the Wallon cinema, but also Klinkaart (1956), Le pain quotidien (1960/64) and La mémoire aux alouettes which Meyer begins in his 80ies and which remains today unfinished. This film is a walk with Meyer in a freedom very watched by the social censorship of the memory.

Philip Mosley wrote: "A Walloon cinema, purposely expressive of itsown history and culture, did not begin to emerge until the mid-1970s, later reaching its apogee in the work of Jean-Jacques Andrien, Thierry Michel, and the brothersLuc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne." (Philip Mosley, Split Screen: Belgian cinema and cultural identiy, p. 105)

It is possible to understand the film without reading the French and Dutch texts who will be translated. But some words in order to introduce...

In order to introduce

Crisis in the capitalist world. Factories are closed down, abandoned. Millions of proletarians are hungry!

"With these words of manifesto and revolt, this founding film of Belgian cinema opens. It is one of the most important references in the documentary genre. In 1932, a great strike had paralysed the coalmines of Wallonia and the response of employers and the police had been merciless. Throughout it all the broader population was ill-informed and largely indifferent. André Thirifays, Pierre Vermeylen and all the indignant young people involved in the Club de l'écran, decided to bear witness to this dire poverty using their weapon, the camera. With the aid of a doctor and a lawyer, with very little funding, hiding from the police but supported by the whole population, the shoot took place in difficult and exciting conditions. The film is hard, magnificent. It has lost nothing of its force, its strong emotional impact of indignation and compassion. It has left to the working class the strongest images of its history and struggles: evictions;thin-faced and absent-looking children packed together in slum houses; the procession with the portrait of Karl Marx; the collecting of low grade coal on the slagheaps at dawn; the begging miner etc. There is also the shock of images placed side by side: houses standing empty while homeless people sleep in the street, near-famine conditions with no aid, whereas big sums of money go to construct a church..."


"A retrospective of documentaries about the work of the director Henri Storck focusing on its militant dimension provides the opportunity to replace this work in the context of the 1930s. The most famous of his short films, Misère au Borinage, has since remained a reference in the field of socially committed documentaries. Shot in 1933 with the collaboration of Joris Ivens, this silent movie (later to become a talkie) reveals the misery in which lived the minors of the Wallon region; a misery caused by the dramatic worsening of the economic situation and the ruthless repression exercised by the employers following workers protest movements. Besides its aesthetic qualities, its emotional power or its role as a historical document, it raises the issue of the relation between fiction and reality in documentary movies. The setting is real, the characters are real, and the poor that appear on the screen are those who lived in the terrible conditions that Storck is documenting, and yet this is an “organized” documentary. Although it was certainly imposed by the cumbersome cinematographic machinery, the principle consisting in organizing the takes has remained one of the pillars of the documentary rhetoric, which has since been refined not by abandoning this principle, but by reclaiming it. The study of Henri Storck’s documentaries also raises the question of the political impact of socially committed movies, and points at the risks of an anachronistic interpretation of images that need to be replaced in their historical context." Yvette Desaut Du reportage artistique au cinéma social in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales n° 1-2, 2006 n° spécial Lumière d'ambiance sur les années 1930

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(*) Political cinema

(**) Josette Debacker

Other References

1) "It is one of the most important references in the documentary genre."  [ Misère au Borinage ] Josette Debacker, Revue belge du cinéma, août 1979. Voir aussi Une encyclopédie des cinémas de Belgique (Guy Jungblut, Patrick Leboutte, Yellow now, Liège, 1990)

2) "The stridency of the work is exemplified by a short film Ivens made with Belgian cinema club leader Henri Storck (1933) portraiting the cruelty plunged into poverty as result of a classic capitalist crisis of over production." (  Patricia Aufderheide, Documentary film: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.79).

3) "Matters worsened in 1956 with the Marcinelle disaster, whose victims included many immigrants, and then with release of initial closure plans for Walloon mines. In scene reminiscent of Storck's Borinage film of 1933, social unrest in the area near Mons escalated into general strike of 1960 and 1961." (Philip Mosley Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and cultural Identity, Suny Press, New-York, 2001,p. 81.)

4) "In making Misère au Borinage (1934), in collaboration with Belgian filmmaker Henri Storck (...) about a massive coal-mine strike in the Borinage region of Belgium, Ivens came to realize that capturing 'life unawares" was not enough: one also had to guard against the artistic norms that might color a filmaker's perspective and diminish his political voice. As Ivens notes in his book, The Camera and I: "When the clean-cut shadow of the barracks window fell on the dirty rags and dishes of a table the plesant effect of the shadow actually destroyed the effect of dirtiness we wanted, so we broke the edges of the shadow. Our aim was to prevent agreeable photographic effects distracting the audience from the unpleasant truths we were showing... There have also been cases in the history of documentary when photograhers became so fascinated by dirt that the result was the dirt looked interesting and strange, not something repellent to the cinema audience." (Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 149.

5) Cris et images du Borinage n° spécial de la revue Wallons-Nous? n° 3 octobre 1981.