Catching up with the directors of Tribeca doc 'Ne Me Quitte Pas'


We recently sat down with the filmmakers behind the documentary Ne Me Quitte Pas, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last Friday.
Dutch filmmakers Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koeverden thought they wanted to make a documentary about Belgium. Then they met a Belgian named Bob, sometimes referred to by his friend Marcel as “the cowboy” because he is rarely seen without his John Wayne hat, and Bob introduced the couple to his “Tree of Life.” Or rather, he tried to. In one of Ne Me Quitte Pas’ earliest scenes, we follow Bob as he makes his way through a forest to the specific tree beneath which he would like, one day, to commit suicide. He describes his tree as he walks, explaining why it, of all the forest’s sylvan beauties, is uniquely suited to shade his final act. But when he reaches his destination, he stops. The trees in this part of the woods have all been cut down. His Tree of Life is no more. Pause for a poignant moment of reflection, of existential ache, to recalibrate this very personal rumination on mortality.
Then Bob looks up and shakes his head. Uh, no. Wrong spot. Maybe it was over there…?

Although Lubbe Bakker says she and her partner van Koeverden decided to scrap their initial documentary panorama of Belgium, a film that would have included an analysis of the country’s

Sabine Lubbe Bakker

modern culture and politics, because it was too “grand,” their final, odd product nonetheless traverses thematic ground that is no less sweeping for being more abstract. Ne Me Quitte Pas chronicles the relationship between Bob and his friend Marcel, both middle-aged alcoholics whose family problems leave them largely dependent upon one another. Theirs is a tale of friendship, denial, illness, failure, acceptance, struggle, depression, redemption, and more struggle. Their film includes poetry and bouts of blackout drunkenness. Terminally adorable children and an estranged adult son. It is often pratfall and slyly funny while at the same time, as Shakespeare would have it, tragic. The day Bob showed Lubbe Bakker and van Koeverden his Tree or Life, or failed to, the filmmakers knew they had something. They would eventually name their film for the song made famous by Belgian icon Jacques Brel in 1959: “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” or Don’t Leave Me.

The filmmakers were granted extraordinary access. They shot weeks’ worth of footage before stumbling upon the scene that would open their documentary. By the time Marcel’s wife decided to leave him – or decided to inform him she was leaving him – both were comfortable enough with the cameras that neither asked Lubbe Bakker or van Koeverden to leave the room when Marcel’s wife told her husband she was seeing another man. Marcel did not appear embarrassed to beg for sex, just one more time, just once more, please, in front of a film crew. He was the more open of the two subjects, Lubbe Bakker and van Koeverden explain, consequently providing many of the film’s more memorable moments: a bit where his drunkenness prevents him from removing his sweater for a very, very long time, and a drunken, swerving nighttime motorcycle ride that ratchets up the tension more effectively than most modern thrillers.

Many modern viewers, however, may find Ne Me Quitte Pas a difficult view. The Tribeca buzz surrounding the movie has been positive, although as Lubbe Bakker notes wryly, the general call to action goes something like, “You should see that weird Belgian film.” Like the society in which its two subjects live, Pasis slow going. “Success is the last thing from these people’s minds,” says Lubbe Bakker of the residents populating Bob and Marcel’s small, rural town. Here in New York City,
Niels van Koeverden

the hustle is a dance most of us perform unconsciously and with little grace. But in the town where Bob and Marcel live, “You wake up at 9am and have a glass of wine,” says van Koeverden. You hang around. You talk. Some days the filmmakers didn’t shoot anything; their subjects, or more accurately, Bob, didn’t feel like it. One brief scene is exemplary: an extended take of an old woman sitting in her doorway, swatting flies.  The directors say they were lucky they had great producers willing to go to bat for them when they said they needed more time, and more time.

Because they amassed so much footage, covering a lengthy period visually evident in Marcel’s changing hairstyles, the filmmakers admit they didn’t know if they had an ending when they finally decided to switch off their cameras. The narrative arc didn’t coalesce until they began to edit, and they were careful not to influence events as they were happening. Midway through the film Marcel goes to rehab and has to speak with a psychiatrist. At the time, Bob asked to see the footage of Marcel’s interview, and the filmmakers refused. At no point did they let either subject see the rushes (although Bob was the only one who asked). Though they befriended the two men, even putting Marcel’s children to bed when he was too drunk to do so, the filmmakers tried to stay far removed from the flow of occurrences itself.

When asked if they ever felt moved to intervene when they saw the extent to which Marcel’s alcoholism was affecting or even endangering him (see the aforementioned drunken motorcycle ride), Lubbe Bakker sighs and shrugs. “He would drive home drunk like that five nights a week,” she says. “That’s life.”

And yet Ne Me Quitte Pas leaves one with the impression of having viewed a fictional character study, perhaps because both Bob and more noticeably Marcel wind up having undergone changes by the end of the movie, the power dynamic of their relationship subtly shifting. When, in the editing room, they realized this change had occurred, says Lubbe Bakker, the filmmakers knew they had an ending.

Both Marcel and Bob are doing well. Following the European premiere of the film, Marcel received such positive audience feedback he decided to go back to rehab. The filmmakers say he loves the facility, playing sports and performing in plays, and doesn’t want to leave. Bob will attend the film’s premiere in Morocco in the filmmakers’ stead. They laugh at the thought of the Belgian cowboy in Africa. Explains Lubbe Bakker, Bob’s a character.