Dutch Docs Lack Critical Eye on Domestic Society

in 17th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

by Karin Wolfs

During this year’s press conference, IDFA director Ally Derks stated her disappointment in the quality of Dutch documentaries. She noted the lack of documentaries dealing with hot topics in Dutch society, such as the assassination of the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn on May 6th 2002, or the ongoing problems with Moroccan youth. In 2002, IDFA had a discussion entitled ‘The world is burning’, but would that be a topic in 2003? Derks’ statement regarding the lack of Dutch films with a strong social or political subject, coincided in IDFA showing an overview of the glory days of the Dutch Documentary School between 1945 and 1965 (Dutch Docs ’45 – ’65), when legendary names like Joris Ivens, Bert Haanstra and Johan van der Keuken reigned supreme.

Still, Derks selected three Dutch docs for the Joris Ivens Award: ‘Arna’s Children’, co-directed by Danniel Danniel, ‘Dame La Mano’ by Heddy Honigmann (‘Crazy’, ‘The Underground Orchestra’), and ‘The Last Victory’ by John Appel. In the Silver Wolf Competition for short docs, Gerrit van Dijk’s animated film ‘The last words of Dutch Schultz’ competed, whereas Ineke Smits’ ‘Putin’s Mama’ was nominated. Arna’s Children shows a compelling portrait of a lost generation growing up in Israeli occupied territories, whereas ‘Dame La Mano’ (about a Cuban danceclub in New York) and ‘The Last Victory’ (about the palio in Siena) are nostalgic and romantic, ‘Dutch Schultz’ is experimental and ‘Putin’s mama’ exotic. All show more interest in form rather than political statements.

The Fipresci jury saw only one Dutch doc this year, one from the 2003 film academy graduates, called ‘Scheppers’, by Chai Locher. IDFA’s new rules only allow premiere screenings into its competition program, the superior ‘Untertage’ by Jiska Rickels couldn’t compete, as it had already been screened at the Dutch Film festival in September.

Of the fifteen films selected in ‘Highlights of the lowlands’, the annual overview of Dutch Doc production, only two tackle a topical Dutch problem: ‘Smile and Wave’ by Marijke Jongbloed (known for her Fatal Reaction-city portrait series) about Dutch participation in the ISAF peace force in Afghanistan, and ‘Welcome to Holland – Campus Vught’ by Sarah Vos (also shown and nominated for a Golden Calf in Sept) about a signally failed experiment on educating single unaccompanied asylum seekers.

These two films demonstrate the awkwardness of Dutch belief in the ‘make-ability’ of society. As long as our country is governed by this principle, we will need to see more documentaries critical of the status quo. The few other films that had a ‘Dutch’-related subject, are merely descriptive in form, except maybe for ‘The price of Survival’ by Louis van Gasteren, about the effects of survival on the second and even third generation of post war-generations.

Of course it’s hard to say from only one IDFA festival whether the Dutch lack political involvement nowadays. Even Ivens, like Haanstra, was greatly obliged in the form of his films. Today, it seems like the form or beauty of what is shown in Dutch docs is more important than the political relevance of its subject matter. But where escapism and romanticism are to be found in one type of film, there is another kind of doco to be found that is much more critical. It might be time for a new political awareness here, since so much is going on in our little country, especially since 9-11 brought fear and distrust of civilians into our little part of the world. More cameras are put up on Dutch streets than ever, without even proving their utility. On the other hand, it has only been a year and a half since Fortuyn was killed. Actually, someone may already be working on that doc for next year’s IDFA!