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The making of The Road to Passchendaele

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On the Road to Passchendaele by Willy Van der Linden got a 4-star award at BIAFF 2009

Civilized People


I am in my early sixties. I started as a narrator, but more and more I speak in a husky or muffled voice. About twenty years ago I bought my first camera and I started to make short films about areas of outstanding beauty in Britain.

My father was a hard worker. I was the eldest of his five children. Four of us became teachers. Every day my Dad had to light gas lanterns at the dock-side of Antwerp. He had to clean and repair them. He was also a war veteran. I grew up in the "golden sixties". I became a foreign teacher of English, of Dutch (my mother-tongue) and history. Maybe that's why most of my films are about Britain. I also tend to go deeply into the history of a region.

For the last ten years of my career, I was an educational adviser at the European school in Brussels after a short spell as a professional politician. I worked for the Minister of Interior and Minister for Social Affairs (pensions).

I have been president of "Focus Vaartland" for 20 years. It's a film club in Willebroek, a town about 20 miles north of Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Two years ago I moved to a village which is not so far from the Dutch border. At that time I also became a member of a film club in Antwerp. On Monday I go to Antwerp. On Wednesday I visit my club in Willebroek.

Life is hectic now, but I can take advantage of both clubs. In Willebroek my clubmates are do-ers. They are always willing to act and help. In Antwerp my films are criticised in a very constructive way. The members are thinkers and jokers.

Perhaps I have too many interests. I'm sports-loving. When I was young - so long ago - I played football in the local team, but more and more I am a bench warmer. In summer I do short cycling tours. In winter I try to sit on my home trainer. But to be honest, I am very lazy. Anyway I can't miss football matches and Tour de France races on TV. Watching snooker is also one of my favourite activities. Most of all I enjoy trips to Britain and Ireland (I was born on St. Patrick's Day!)

Opening shot of the film 'On the Road to Passchendaele'. Museum case of helmets in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'. War cemetery in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'.

On the Road to Passchendaele

Two years ago I made the documentary Will Ye Go to Flanders?

I thought that some archive footage was essential for that film. A search operation on internet resulted in meeting Freddy Declerck, a former naval officer. He is president of the "Passchendaele Society 1917", a group of volunteers who work to promote the Memorial Museum. Freddy was willing to help me, but he also wanted something in return.

The Battle of Passchendaele took place in 1917. 500,000 young men were eliminated in only 100 days, and that for an advance of only 6 miles. Terrible! Unreal! That needed to be commemorated in the most respectful way. Therefore Freddy even invited Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Albert I and Paola, our Belgian King and Queen, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to the ceremonies. A film about all the events would be wonderful, he thought.

Also the funeral of 5 Australian soldiers and 1 Lancashire Fusilier was planned. Freddy, who is an excavator, told me that every year the remains of about 50 soldiers are found in Flanders Fields. I considered his request for filming as a piece of luck. I accepted.

The visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was the climax of all the events. I was screened by the security forces and received two badges. The same was true for my brother, who carried the tripod.

Unbelievable. I was the only camera man who was allowed to the follow the Queen and her consort, Prince Philip. The BBC for instance had to stay in "press pools". Everybody was a bit nervous, even the Royals who were worried about their reserved seats of honour. For a few moments I came face to face with Her Majesty the Queen, but she didn't seem to feel disturbed. Apparently she is used to being confronted by creatures like me.

That night I stayed in a B&B. There I met the man who had been the personal piper for the late Queen Mother for five years. I had a chat with him. I thought he was Scottish, but he was an Englishman who lives in Kent.

Not only the visits of the Royals and other dignitaries were captivating, but also the things that happened behind the scenes. For instance I attended the press conference. Journalists and newscasters from all over the world were there. One moment I was standing next to a red haired BBC-newsreader with freckles on his nose who once was at loggerheads with Prince Charles. In the press centre they received all the information and they were offered a light lunch. Everything was organized in a perfect way. Freddy was the big boss, but he knew how to delegate everything. He was the "general" and the members of his society formed his "troops". My admiration for this man grew constantly. In the end my film was not just a tribute to half a million youngsters who gave their lives for our freedom, but also to a man and his friends who took the initiative to pay homage to the fallen in such an impassioned way.

Buglers in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'. Saluting soldier in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'. Queen Elizabeth II in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'.

That's what a Club is for …

My only crew member during the ceremonies was my brother. He dragged my German Libec along. It's a very heavy tripod. I think about 7 kilogram. I can't do without it, though from time to time, I just lie on the ground with my camera: a frog's eye perspective results in superb photography sometimes. Of course I did not do this when Her Majesty was passing me, but how many times I lay in a cemetery shooting gravestones!

For the interview with Freddy I asked some clubmates to help me. That's what a club is for … helping each other! Then I used a directional Sennheiser microphone on a boom and a spotlight on a tripod. That was necessary in the dark underground trenches of the Memorial Museum. It took some time to create the right light quality. Both microphone and spotlight belong to my club. We bought them some years ago because they are so useful.

Filming the outdoor interview took one day. It was sunny and windless. The weather conditions were excellent and in cemeteries there is always a serene tranquillity. That's also an advantage. There is no noise of traffic or other things. I had to stop only once. The moment when a workman was using his lawn mower in the cemetery while Freddy was explaining everything he had to prepare for the visit of the Queen. I got very nervous, but the man had to do his job.

The Scottish tattoo was filmed with the microphone of my Sony 2000 camera. Also an excellent one! The speeches could be heard through loudspeakers and were recorded perfectly by my camera.

Piper in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'. Freddy Declerck in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'. Excavating remains in 'On the Road to Passchendaele'.

No Sinecure

Filming a ceremony is no sinecure you know! I received a programme from Freddy, but I still had to be very attentive. Most of the time my eyes were focused on the Queen, but I also had to shoot the military band playing the national anthems, an old airplane flying over Tyne Cot Cemetery and the Royal Piper walking along the gravestones. I took numerous shots with a length of only five or six seconds, very short and functional zooms, and little "tracking shots" or "pans" from left to right or vice versa and then I rushed to another place to film other things. That was really exhausting.

Eventually, after all the ceremonies and other events, I had more than 20 hours of film. It took almost a year to edit everything. The result was a reportage of 55 minutes. The film was screened "en première" in the village of Passchendaele itself. Everybody seemed to enjoy it. All the volunteers received a copy. The Mayor of Passchendaele (Zonnebeke) offered me a night in a luxury B & B and a dinner in a restaurant. I was happy and proud. Making that film was quite an adventure. It was unforgettable.

Of course On the Road to Passchendaele was too long for a competition like BIAFF. Therefore I deleted all speeches by politicians and the laying of wreathes. I shortened some sequences like a Scottish tattoo and other things. Eventually I managed to cut the film in half. I still kept the most emotional moments.

People who have also seen Will Ye Go to Flanders? tend to compare both films. That's wrong. The other film was also full of emotion, it's true. But it was a personal story. It was about my own family that suffered in the Great War. On the Road to Passchendaele is not a documentary. It is a reportage of events that were also moving, but in a different way.

Throughout the film you can hear the song "On the Road to Passchendaele"*. It was composed especially for this commemorative year. I thought that all events in the film had to be accompanied by that bagpipe music to strengthen the atmosphere of passionate homage.

I personally find the last words Freddy says in the film very touching:

"This is how we pay tribute to all the soldiers who came
sometimes from the other side of the world, and died here,"
he said.
"They made the ultimate sacrifice.
Those countries cannot honour their dead daily.
That's the duty we have taken on.
Those who honour their dead are civilized people!"

A good phrase for the end my film I thought.

- Willy Van der Linden

* One of Scotland's top Pipers, Major RTD Gavin Stoddart MBE BEM and Hawick singer-song-writer Alan Brydon of Scocha were commissioned to write it by the organisers of the new memorial to fallen Scots at Passchendaele. See them perform it on YouTube.

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Page updated on 06 October 2011
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