Cinema's 60-Year Overnight Success Story - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Cinema's 60-Year Overnight Success Story

Cinema's 60-Year Overnight Success Story

By Eugene S. Robinson

SourceJean Harlez


Because “Never say die” is a pretty good general operating principle.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Governments work in wondrous ways. Specifically the Belgian government. Not only did it do without itself for a record-breaking 589 days, but back in 1954, its Ministry of Agriculture gave a bunch of money to a young filmmaker named Jean Harlez.

Harlez was largely self-taught and learned what he knew by serving as an assistant to the notable surrealist filmmaker Charles Dekeukeleire. However, Harlez himself had no camera. Deterred not at all, he built a camera. And since he had improvised his ass off to get this far, he continued on to film for two years on the streets of Marolles, a poor neighborhood in Brussels whose closest U.S. corollary at the time would have been New York City’s Lower East Side. 

In The Kids’ Construction Site, the kids launch a rebellion complete with homemade catapults.

So with a pocketful of government money, a homemade camera and a dream, Harlez began to shape his movie about kids. Since his amateur child actors already spent their time playing in a V-1 missile crater close to the Palais de Justice, created during the death throes of World War II, that became his setting. The plot was essentially crowdsourced, becoming a film about the kids being chased out of the bomb hole by an army of architects and civil engineers — only to have the kids launch their own counteraction by way of a rebellion complete with homemade catapults.

Jean Harlez with his homemade camera

Jean Harlez with his homemade camera.

Source Jean Harlez

Calling it Le Chantier des Gosses, roughly translated as The Kids’ Construction Site, Harlez did his filming on school holidays, on weekends and pretty much anytime it could be counted on that the all-too-eager kids would show up and just be kids. He had two years of messing around with the visuals before he could move on to the audio, but by then, the money had run out. It was now 1958, and at this point, civic pride had kicked in and the government wasn’t interested in a film revisiting the good old bad times — leaving Harlez stuck where many erstwhile filmmakers get stuck: wishing he had the money to finish his work.

But by hook and by crook, 12 years later Harlez had a finished copy. In all its full-blown quirk, feeling equal parts French New Wave and Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Harlez’s black-and-white opus was finally ready to be shown. The premiere took place on Sept. 30, 1970, at the tony Palais des Congrès in Brussels and had strong enough reviews to guarantee a healthy TV run the next year. But art resists all measures but one: cash. Harlez’s film didn’t make much and as such was soon largely forgotten.


Until January 2014, when Brussels’ famous alt-indie Cinéma Nova made a new 35 mm print of the film and screened it for two months straight to packed houses. Kids from the cast, now adults, showed up, and most nights were sold out. With more than 6,500 tickets sold, the run was good enough to book another month-long engagement at the equally noteworthy Cinéma Vendôme.

As for Jean Harlez, who turned 90 on New Year’s Eve? We wouldn’t begrudge him a thoroughly deep and heartfelt “I told you so” about a film that we think is a hidden gem and a cool delight, even if you don’t speak French.

To catch the complete film, you may need to plan a trip or subscribe to Belgian TV — get updates on the latest screenings by following the film on Facebook.


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