Requiem for the Many Babu's

in Documentarist – Istanbul Documentary Days

by Maricke Nieuwdorp

Found footage from a vast stock of disparate film clips was woven to create one fictional character from many unknown women. Maricke Nieuwdorp pays tribute to director Sandra Beerends who masterfully brings to life Alina during the Japanese occupation of the colonial Dutch East Indies, recounting her journey to Holland to be a nanny.

This unique and eye-catching documentary might have been filmed in black and white, but the detailing of both a universal and personal history is anything but that. A narrative about a fictional Javanese nanny in Dutch colonial times, told through archive material and the combined life stories of several nannies and those around them, portray a colourful, layered, subtle and yet gripping story.

In the late 1930s, the Javanese nanny Alina travels from the Indonesian rice fields to the cold, orderly Holland, far afield. The family then travels back within months with Alina in their wake. Once back home Alina and ‘her family’ experience how the Japanese occupy the colonial Dutch East Indies. After that the Indonesian struggle for independence sends the Dutch home permanently. This turbulent history is the backdrop against which the story of a nanny, aka babu (baboe/m’ba (miss) and ibu/iboe (mother), is told, completely from her perspective. She has become a woman that is painfully aware of her position. Still, Alina has the courage and wisdom to stand up for herself, she dares to take the hard road – and triumphs in her own way.  

This unique, eye-catching document visually consists of a rich mix of archival images and is constructed from the stories of dozens of real-life babu’s, their descendants or people who were once cared for by a babu. All these personal life histories together form ‘one babu’ that did not exist, but could have. The best part is: Alina has become a real human being with a heart and soul. Screenwriter and director Sandra Beerends, who herself has a Dutch-Indonesian background, watched about 500 films from various archives for this project. Shots from 179 films ended up in her final film. Beerends carefully constructed a story and juxtaposed it with beautiful and often rare images. In particular, the found footage from family archives is stunning. All in all it must have been a hell of a job, making a complex puzzle of it all in the editing room.

It is not only those special images and the eventful history itself that make this story so compelling. It has in fact many facets and layers. It’s for instance the touching little details that help bring this documentary to life: the way Alina tied little ribbons on fences in Holland, because otherwise she wouldn’t be able to find the house again. How she speaks so lovingly of her mother’s hands, which were wrinkled from work in the wet rice fields. The comforting, warm body of Jantje, the Dutch baby boy she had to take care of. How impressed she was by her beloved Riboet, who, as an independence fighter, offered her a different view of the role of the Dutch, which resulted in a conflict of loyalty. Alina is loving, balanced, curious, and eager to learn. She lives her life with a sense of symbolism and poetry. Denise Aznam, who gives Alina her voice in the voice-over, sounds pleasantly lilting. The sound design and music score also are very striking and compelling. It is all nicely integrated in the editing, which in itself deserves many compliments. A viewer would hardly notice that they are looking at several different stories instead of one.

In addition to being a beautiful film, it is also a valuable history document for generations yet to come. Never is They Call Me Babu ‘educational’ in any way. Yet, it teaches us about the effects of colonialism, war, oppression of women, capitalism, class differences and human rights. It crosses all cultural boundaries, as well as those of time and national borders. It does raise a lot of important questions though: Who owns a country – and why? Why is one man assumed to be better or supposedly living by a higher standard? And why doesn’t everyone get the same opportunities?  

Maricke Nieuwdorp
Edited by Steven Yates