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Notes from Brussels: A film about the madness of working in the bubble
In 2012, Nadine Van Loon left her fast-paced, all-consuming job at foreign affairs in the Hague. It was a job that saw her spending time in the Brussels bubble, where she had started her career years before.
The Dutch native returned to Brussels in the years that followed with her diplomat husband and began to wonder how all those women still working in the kind of environment she had abandoned, exhausted and burned out, were managing to do it all.
Having given up politics for filmmaking, she began to shoot a documentary. Notes from Brussels is now playing at Cinema Galeries, and Van Loon will be present on 15 December to discuss the movie following the screening.
“When I moved back to Brussels, I could see these earlier versions of myself,” she says from her current home in the Hague. “My first job was as a political assistant for the European parliament. I was 25. Later, I became very aware of these phases in our lives, and I was so curious about how people who had stayed in Brussels were moulded by this very special ambiance that I could feel again when I came back.”
Nadine Van Loon at the opening of her new documentary in Brussels ©Karijn Kakebeeke
She went looking for subjects for a film “that would reflect those different phases of life that you go through and how time in this special place shapes you, and how you deal with finding a sense of purpose in your career, and how your home country doesn’t always understand your world.”
It was a tall order, but Notes from Brussels delivers, profiling three women of different generations working in the EU. Anne-Cécile Gault is a French parliamentary assistant who is blocked from fully making Brussels her home; Joanna Sopinska is a Polish trade journalist concerned about her home country’s Euro-scepticism; and deputy director-general Beate Gminder (pictured top centre), a German who heads the migration management taskforce.
The three form a microcosm of the European project and the jobs that go with them. Van Loon wanted someone from France and from Germany – “founding countries of the European Union” and someone from a newer member state. She looked for “women who in their personal stories had something to do with why Europe was built and who felt really engaged and had a strong love for Europe.”
‘Every moment of the day is filled’: Parliamentary assistant An-Cécile
She filmed the women for more than three years, so we make the trajectory with them as they struggle – each in their own way – with trying to be as effective as they can in their jobs while maintaining a sense of self.
Two of them are losing this struggle, as they battle health problems directly related to jobs that – quite literally – take up their whole lives. “My burnout manifested itself in sleepless nights,” says Van Loon, “and I really had to change my way of life – take breaks, be home in the evenings to put my kids to bed and have some quiet. I need time to reflect. That’s my character.”
She recognised herself in the young parliamentary assistant Anne-Cécile. “When I worked there, there was no social media.” While Van Loon could get away from her telephone by leaving her office, Anne-Cécile has no such luxury. “For her, every moment of the day is filled. You can see that she just wants to make sure that everyone around her was being taken care of, but that resulted in her having health problems. I wondered, was she aware of it?”
High-ranking Beate faced similar problems. Chronic stress has stopped her body from producing enough cortisol, and she suffered from fatigue. She also experienced pain from sitting too much and not getting enough exercise – which she never had time to do.
“Their struggles were seen as a fact of life,” says Van Loon, “and that’s what I felt really indignant about. It’s this modus operandi, you have to give it your all, and if you can’t, then you’re not in the game anymore.”
Journalist Joanna’s struggles are a little different. From Poland, she is distressed that the country she still loves appears to be abandoning European ideals.
“I have always been fascinated by the demise of the Soviet Union,” says Van Loon. “I was about 14 when the Berlin Wall fell, and I was so intrigued by this idea that people had grown up in a different system, an autocracy. I remember these very hopeful transition years. I thought for a country like Poland, what is it like if you’ve been raised under Communism, and you literally step into this EU system, this bubble, what is the psychological reality of that? I met Johanna, and she told me how she missed Poland. And I was curious how you deal with that conflict. How do you feel about having this interesting job when your country is drifting away from these European values?”
Caught between two worlds: Joanna
These two strands – constant stress and never-ending hours and feeling torn between two homes – are what viewers are left to consider walking out of Notes from Brussels. A conversation in the film among three parliamentary assistants really drives home the concept of the former: None of them want to become MEPs – the people for whom they work – having come to the realisation that the stress never comes to an end.
“I think by making these struggles more visible, we can become more aware of it and have discussions,” says Van Loon. I hope with the film that I can make people reflect on how we exhaust ourselves filling every moment.” Endless emails, social media, WhatsApp. “It’s all very cerebral. It’s not what we’re made for as humans. We need breaks.”
At the same time, she admits, “it’s fascinating the issues you can work on in the EU bubble. And people really love it. You meet interesting people, which is energising. So there’s this addictive element to it.”
She hopes the young women of today can find middle ground, so they do not have to abandon jobs they love. “But still it’s a bit challenging, I think. It’s not easy to set your own boundaries, especially when you are starting a career.”
Notes from Brussels screens at Cinema Galeries on 15 December, followed by a talk with Nadine Van Loon and Beate Gminder, and on 22 December