"What makes the BSF stand out is the fact that it's affordable, fun and unique to Brussels", boasts 25-year-old Marie, a Brussels native through and through. Third-time, fifty-something attendee Isabelle concurs: "I discover new bands here with my husband every year."
The BSF is a sea of colors and faces, a straight-up jungle where passion is second only to music. Not a hint of fear in the air, just a primal urge to seek and share happiness. "Some of my friends stayed in this year because of the March bombings", admits 24-year-old Manon. Her friend Marie shrugs it off—"What can you do; whatever happens, happens"—as Julian Perretta's voice echoes, "You saved me, I saved you" in the background. "It shouldn't stop us from enjoying life", she tells her.
Manon: "It's still on my mind, though."
Manon: "Yeah. I mean, sometimes."
Marie: "Well, I have to admit that police sirens put me on edge these days as well."
And Marie is not alone. Brussels has been collectively gasping for a new lease on life in the wake of the March terrorist attacks. A boost in energy, strength, diversity—the things that otherwise lend this city its unique character. But what does Brussels actually mean to the BSF crowd?
Brussels: A big city with small-town flair
For 37-year-old Luigi from Schaerbeek and 35-year-old Esther from Waterloo, Brussels is a big city with small-town flair: geographically small and close-knit. "It's our home. A cosmopolitan and culturally diverse city that isn't exactly the prettiest—compared to other European cities—but that has a lot going for it that people don't even realize." Marie feels the same way: "Brussels is a lively and charming little town", and her BFFs, too, agree that nothing can come between them and Bruxelles la belle. "You'll find cute neighborhoods and shops everywhere", asserts Isabelle, "and when the sun's out, downtown is the place to be to catch a glimpse of the Marolles district and have drinks in trendy Saint-Géry. It's not a small city by any means." As for 22-year-old Brazilian expat Eric, still new to Belgium, his favorite hangout is the first place he visited when he moved here: Cinquantenaire Park, which he describes as "beautiful".
As we navigate our way through the festival, going from Place Royale to the heart of the BSF at Mont des Arts, we run into countless booths and curious onlookers, some of whom decide to join the fun for free. We go down the stairs and, as we near the park, a group of volunteers stops us in our tracks. We fire a few questions at them and discover along the way that they are teens from Brussels, all with the same passion for music: "Brussels in a nutshell? The BSF!"
Brussels, the driving force behind Europe
When we dare to ask attendees what they think of Europe, opinions are slightly more mixed.
Isabelle: "I'm 100% European. Overall, I'd say Europe is a positive thing. People have kind of forgotten why Europe exists in the first place, but it started as a project to prevent more world wars, so, for me, Europe is tied to certain values. We should always remember that."
For seasoned traveler Stephan, "Europe is about traveling without borders to countries where you can pay with a single currency."
Frenchwoman Lisa, 37, who is attending the festival with her 32-year-old Cameroonian boyfriend, feels that "Europe defies easy definition. Some people are pro-European while others are not. The idea of Europe itself is great."
But among the volunteers is a more skeptical voice that shouts, "Europe is a shithole."
Everyone's input matters, despite the differences in opinion. The European project needs strengthening and we should remember what started it in order to get it back on track. Brussels is the driving force behind Europe's progress and it needs to stay that way by promoting more community events like the Brussels Film Festival.
Just a few months ago, people covered the walls of the Brussels Stock Exchange with words like "Bruxelles ma belle, you'll get through this". It's because of people like them, because of the people who attended the BSF and because of every single person who doesn't allow fear to govern their lives that we managed to get through and get over this dark time. It's this sense of community that is needed, not hatred. And it's time we remembered that.