Of Belgian descent, Van Dormael was raised in Germany until age seven, when his family returned to Belgium. At his birth, the future filmmaker had nearly been strangled by the umbilical cord and received an insufficient supply of oxygen. It was feared that he may end up mentally impaired. This trauma perhaps accounts for the recurring themes in his films, which explore the worlds of those who are considered "mentally handicapped." Eventually moving to France to study film, Van Dormael supported himself by working as a clown. He began making short films in 1980 with the children's story "Maedli le breche." A number of his subsequent shorts, including "L'Imitateur" (1982) and "E Percoloso Sporgersi" (1984), had themes centering on the joy of and the talent for living.