Misery Borinage

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Crisis in the capitalist world. Factories are closed down, abandoned. Millions of proletarians are hungry!

With these words of manifesto and revolt, this founding film of Belgian cinema opens. It is one of the most important references in the documentary genre. In 1932, a great strike had paralysed the coalmines of Wallonia and the response of employers and the police had been merciless. Throughout it all the broader population was ill-informed and largely indifferent. André Thirifays, Pierre Vermeylen and all the indignant young people involved in the Club de l’écran, decided to bear witness to this dire poverty using their weapon, the camera.

With the aid of a doctor and a lawyer, with very little funding, hiding from the police but supported by the whole population, the shoot took place in difficult and exciting conditions. The film is hard, magnificent. It has lost nothing of its force, its strong emotional impact of indignation and compassion. It has left to the working class the strongest images of its history and struggles: evictions; thin-faced and absent-looking children packed together in slum houses; the procession with the portrait of Karl Marx; the collecting of low grade coal on the slagheaps at dawn; the begging miner etc. There is also the shock of images placed side by side: houses standing empty while homeless people sleep in the street, near-famine conditions with no aid, whereas big sums of money go to construct a church…


Directors : Joris Ivens and Henri Stork

Inspired by Dr. Hennebert’s brochure : “On crêve au levant de Mons”

Initiators : The Club de l’écran de Bruxelles (André Thirifays, Pierre Vermeylen) created in 1931

Advisers : Jean Fonteyne, Paul Hennebert

Camera : Joris Ivens, François Rents, Henri Storck, newsreels from the period

Production :EPI Éducation populaire par l’image
Coproduction: Club de l’écran
Voice of André Thirifays in addition of sound in 1963

Photography : Willy Kessels and Sacha Stone


35mm/B and W/28’/1933 (sound 1963)


Version with music 1983

Music : André Asriel

Design and text for two voices : Lothar Prox

Orchestra : Dusseldorf ensemble of the Robert Schumann Institute.


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Misère au Borinage is a report, so to speak, it is not a written documentary, or a film made after a study of a subject matter, with a point of view. It is a very sincere and passionate statement because Joris and I were deeply moved by the living conditions and poverty of these people… We wanted to reveal how Dantesque, how infernal this working class world was, how they suffered unimaginable poverty, the degradation, the resignation, the revolt. We felt a sense of intimate participation in the life of these people, and were convinced that the document itself would suffice, that it would communicate its horrific significance to most audiences, which for the most part have no idea that such lives exist…

Henri Storck, Documentary explorations, G. Leroy Levin, New York, Double day, 1971


… In many respects, this founding film of Belgian cinema is revolutionary. It is a first film of testimony… the first experiment in fictionalising the real world, … the first documented point of view… the first plunge into the social world of a region already in a state of decomposition. Borinage practically invented it all…

Une encyclopédie des cinémas de Belgique. Under the direction of Guy Jungblut, Patrick Leboutte and Dominique Païni, Ed. Yellow Now, 1990


Borinage describes the poverty of the inhabitants of this region with such force that for a long time, the authorities preferred to ban its screening.

Paul Davay, Cinéma de belgique, Ed Duculot.

Correction: This information was often repeated and has gained credence. It has been totally rejected by Henri Storck.


There are two sections to the images and texts: one is strictly documentary, showing typical cases… vile living conditions that are often ignored though they rub shoulders with prosperity. The other part is that of the directors siding with the working class. This caused a film critic, R. Jauniaux, to say that the second part is not objective, that the socialists are being pushed aside, leaving room only for the communists, that this is a propaganda film…

Josette Debacker, Revue belge du cinéma, August 1979


By its very essence, cinema is an art within the reach of the masses. And yet it has never been used to interest the masses in their own evolution, their own expression. On the contrary, up to the present time, cinema has only served to entertain them, put them to sleep, turn them away from their worries and problems. The worker is a character unknown to the screen…

As for the value of a social document, most of the time even the most elementary expression of life is removed from them. During the creation of our film, one fact took on particular importance and would be hard to exaggerate: it is the quality of this material, a quality that can only come from direct contact with life, with daily existence.

Joris Ivens, Henri Storck, Interview for Revue belge du cinéma, Documents 34, n°4, January 1934