Berlinale 2023 review: Here (Bas Devos)

“That’s how Here captivates in moments, stringing together a loose narrative collection of encouragements to open our eyes, to see the world and the potential of its embrace.”

The terrestrial and human connections Bas Devos cultivates in the sublime Here sow an ecosystem of compassion and hope. Peering through modest vistas and immersing in delicate moments, the work is an invitation to explore things seen and unseen, with nuance and spirit. So, when the young man at its center, less a character than an expression, states “I’m awake” from the recline of his sofa somewhere in Brussels, those simple words break our silence with the smallest of epiphanies. That’s how Here captivates in moments, stringing together a loose narrative collection of encouragements to open our eyes, to see the world and the potential of its embrace.

The nameless man with sleepless nights is a foreign worker (Stefan Gota), posted at the site of a tower under construction in Belgium. That lumbering frame of steel and concrete strains through foliage to open Here, but Devos doesn’t necessarily position the man-made at odds with the natural world. In this fable, there’s the potential of balance between earthly cohabitants, a modern peaceable kingdom, one that the man explores. As a laborer from another land, he is invisible in many ways. In insomniac drifts across the city, even more so, passing along with the seemingly constant breeze, encountering friends and family as he prepares to leave for holiday, perhaps for good.

In one encounter, gazing across a field of rail lines, an acquaintance mentions that the first trains in Europe began in Brussels though he’s not exactly sure when. It’s a melancholic ode, but as the day breaks on the urban horizon with a hug, the statement feels open to promise. These are juxtapositions that Devos is careful to capture as possibilities, not threats, one of many exquisitely composed arrangements visualizing the landscape of relationships. In another moment, the young man enjoys an improvised picnic with friends in an industrial meadow, revealing that an older man in the group has a heart defibrillator. Technology and science are in unison with the riverside of wild grasses, the observed and invisible both key to the joys of being present.

Devos appreciates our habitation of multiple spaces in concert and appeals to the warm, interpersonal comradery nature fosters. In Here, this can be as straightforward as investigating the mysteries of lichen or sharing the comforts of homemade vegetable soup. When the routine of a botanist (Liyo Gong) runs parallel then intersects with the days of the construction worker, it’s an organic, humble reflection of this human ecology. She is a young woman supporting family in a Chinese restaurant, but also researching moss in her studies, often solitaire in discovery over a microscope. Her view under the lens is a kaleidoscope of greens in brilliant patterns of life, mirroring the mosaic he observes in marches beneath arbor canopies. With a chance meeting, the bryologist invites the worker to literally look closer, to find the barely seen. With contemplation, Devos shows the synthesis between their varied wanderings into meaningful relationships, natural and human. There is splendor and revelation that each finds sharing gifts previously unknown.

When the scientist acknowledges ‘my color is green’ in voiceover, it’s punctuation to a loving montage near the end of Here that stuns with the everyday glories of nature. It is not a manifesto as much as a reminder from Devos that in being here, we have the incredible potential to also be there. If we allow ourselves the possibility, these elements are not mutually exclusive. Our everyday compassions, willingness to be open to see ourselves, others and the world that surrounds us are Here, seedlings to uncover, gather and nurture.

(c) Image copyright: Erik de Cnodder