An Angel in Doel: Berlin Review

Patient, poised documentary portrait of a stubborn senior-citizen and her rapidly-vanishing neighborhood.

This quietly accomplished feature-length debut by Tom Fassaert, expanding upon his film-school graduation short, is a poetic black-and-white about plucky, bureaucracy-battling seniors.

BERLIN — The shadow of mortality hangs heavy over Belgian-Dutch documentary An Angel In Doel. Indeed, by the time it's over, one of the main participants is already six feet under. Obliquely hinting at wider political and social issues by focusing on one doomed village and its last inhabitants, this is a quietly accomplished feature-length debut by Tom Fassaert, expanding upon his film-school graduation short Doel Lives. Festivals and TV channels specializing in non-fiction fare should check out this poetic black-and-white essay -- though there's hardly a shortage of documentaries on plucky, bureaucracy-battling seniors just now.

Even by the established standards of the mini-genre, 75-year-old widow Emilienne makes for a particularly stubborn and resilient heroine. She's very strongly attached to the township of Doel, just along the river from the mega-port of Antwerp in Flemish-speaking half of Belgium. It's an area which is to be "sacrificed" as part of harbor-expansion plans. (Doel's plight is also more briefly examined in Noel Burch and Allan Sekula's globe-hopping documentary The Forgotten Space, currently doing the festival rounds.)

Families and young people have quickly departed, but a small number of older residents aren't so keen to make way for "progress." This includes Emilienne, her two best friends, and the local pastor Verstraete. The first half of An Angel in Doel (De Engel van Doel) concentrates equally on Emilienne and the aged, ailing Verstraete, until the latter's sudden though hardly unexpected demise. When Emilienne's fellow grannies move away, she's left "all alone" with only her cats (and the documentary team) for company, maintaining a low-level war of attrition with (unseen) local authorities who are keen for her to leave Doel to the encroaching bulldozers.

Fassaert isn't interested in examining the rights and wrongs of Emilienne's case: At no point do we hear the government's angle and must draw our own conclusions about the balance between Belgium's economic needs and the rights of its individual citizens. For the most part he takes an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall approach, his carefully composed images (three cinematographers are credited) seeking out dusty, jagged beauty in dereliction, dilapidation and decay.

High aerial shots present Doel as a mist-shrouded, ghostly zone already receding into the past and haunted by the living. The tone is, perhaps inevitably, elegiac and even mournful, but there are welcome moments of leavening humor that prevent proceedings from becoming excessively bleak or dour. There's something compellingly uncompromising about Emilienne: "I'm still here," she asserts in the final minutes, the proverbial immovable object holding out against unstoppable foes.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: SNG; CinéTéFilmproducties
Director/screenwriter: Tom Fassaert
Producers: Digna Sinke, Willem Thijssen
Directors of photography: Daniël Bouquet, Diderik Evers, Reinout Steenhuizen
Music: Tobias Borkert
Editors: Tom Fassaert, Axel Skovdal Roelofs, Thabi Mooi
Sales: SNG, Amsterdam
No rating, 76 minutes