Review: The End of Innocence
- The third film by Pauline Beugnies is a documentary that looks at the effects of the infamous Dutroux case on Belgian society, especially people who were kids at the time
The third feature-length film by Belgian writer-director Pauline Beugnies, The End of Innocence, which has world-premiered at Hot Docs, tells the story of the infamous Dutroux case, which was arguably the first to bring paedophilia into the public's consciousness in the 1990s. The case itself is well documented, but what Beugnies explores is its effect on Belgian society, especially the generation who were children at the time.
The film is almost fully made up of archive footage: TV reports and home videos from the 1990s are accompanied by voice-overs of people who were between seven and 17 years old when Marc Dutroux started kidnapping the girls. The fear united the famously divided nation, and when the paedophile and his accomplices were arrested in 1996, details of the incompetence of the state services started coming out. The media coverage was huge, and people's outrage exploded. It turned out that the two girls who were the first to be kidnapped, and who were found starved to death, could have been saved if the gendarmerie and the federal police had collaborated instead of sabotaging each other.
After building up for weeks, amidst angry protests, the public revolt culminated in what was dubbed The White March, when 350,000 people walked silently through the streets of Brussels. And that was it: no real, sensible, focused public debate followed, not even after the 2004 sentencing. There were many questions left unanswered following the trial, and the case remained a stain on the soul of the nation. Even today, people are traumatised by it, and their trust in the government has never recovered. It changed the way people looked at each other, relationships within families became awkward, and every stranger was a potential menace. Arguably, it was the case that kickstarted awareness of the sexual abuse of minors worldwide as well, but incest and paedophilia are still largely taboo subjects, to this day.
However, the ones that ended up being marked in the most complex, insidious and shocking ways were the people who were kids themselves at the time. At least 20 different testimonies are compiled into a sort of collective voice-over, describing the atmosphere in the 1990s. The case was all over the news, and parents would ban their kids from going out, but many never thought of turning off the TV. For many children on the cusp of adolescence, their first encounter with sex came from these reports on sexual abuse. At the time, talking to parents about sexuality was not a thing people did at all, and the school system only introduced safety warnings, which was confusing for kids who were previously taught to respect grown-ups. No one talked to the children about what they were experiencing.
It's a shocking reminder of how different the public conscience was only some 25 years ago, and how damaging it all was. By convincingly immersing us in that world through the specific quality of the VHS and TV footage and sound, Beugnies makes an uncannily astute point about topics that are a taboo today as well, when we have, to a large extent, learned how important it is for children to feel free to discuss their questions and experiences. The Dutroux case was a watershed moment for Belgium and the Western world, but its effects are much more complicated and complex than we remember. This is why The End of Innocence is such an important film in an era that we consider enlightened.
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