Les États généraux du film documentaire 2006 Doc history

Doc history

Dutch Documentary in four movements

When talking about Dutch documentary many film historians refer to the so-called Dutch Documentary School. And sometimes they start dropping names. Outside of the Netherlands the big names of Dutch documentary are Joris Ivens and — more recently — Johan van der Keuken. Sometimes a third name is added: Bert Haanstra. These three names represent three generations of Dutch documentary filmmakers: Joris Ivens, being one of the pioneers of the international documentary movement throughout the twentieth century; Bert Haanstra, as the most emblematic of the second generation (i.e. post WWII) of Dutch documentarists; and Johan van der Keuken, whose films have had a major impact in the international documentary field during the last thirty years. But none of these filmmakers represent a “school”. Haanstra, on the contrary, has possibly been the most Dutch of Dutch documentary filmmakers, but to know what this means we have to dive into Dutch documentary film history and try to trace back some movements and to define “Dutch documentary” — if it is definable at all. This is what Doc History is trying to do in Lussas this year.

As in many countries, the documentary film movement evolved out of the newsreel practice and the avant-garde movements. The newsreel production in the early 1910’s was largely dominated by Pathé and Gaumont. Next to those two it was Willy Mullens who established a name as newsreel producer. It led to some commissions (for the Tourist office and the Dutch government) that received high acclaim with critics: Mullens combined clear story telling with beautiful photography. In 1918, he created the production company Haghe Film to facilitate the production of newsreels and commissioned films. Out of his many newsreels Willy Mullens made in 1922 a compilation that came to be known as Nederland (The Netherlands): a promotional film of the Netherlands that was labelled “a national monument”.
In the same years, Polygoon started its work as another film production company specialised in newsreels. Mullens concentrated on commissions for the government and trade and oil companies. In the meantime the avant-garde movement gained momentum and Mullens’s film style was soon regarded as outdated. It was the Dutch Film League that showed films like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Pudowkin’s The Mother and films of the French avant-garde. The Film League was quite rigid in its ideas on cinema: formal aspects should prevail; film was considered as an art form and should not merely use its cinematographic language to tell silly stories. Cor Aafjes, working for Polygoon, was one of those filmmakers largely influenced by this movement, which clearly shows in his Handelsbladfilm, a film celebrating the hundred years of the newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad in 1928. Aafjes might well have been of similar fame as Joris Ivens, had he not died in the same year at the age of thirty-two.
Joris Ivens had become the main figure of the Dutch avant-garde in those years, with internationally recognised films as The Bridge (which influence echoes in Paul Schuitema’s Maasbruggen) and Rain. Although the avant-garde movement in the Netherlands was relatively short-lived, it had a major influence on Dutch documentaries that, through the years, continued to combine the informative and realist aspects of newsreels with the aesthetic approach of avant-garde films.

This continuity becomes clear when comparing films like Ivens’ Philips Radio (1931) with Bert Haanstra’s Oscar winning Glass (1958), or Raab van Canstein’s Als de halmen buigen (1930) with several films of Herman van der Horst or John Fernhout. Haanstra, van der Horst and Fernhout became the protagonists of post-war documentary filmmaking. Especially the last two were closely involved in filming the reconstruction of the Netherlands. This reconstruction was often represented through the struggle against water, a recurring theme in Dutch cinema and in Dutch life in general. Herman van der Horst and Bert Haanstra won many prizes with their films and were regular guests of the Cannes film Festival. They were the heralds of what others labelled the Dutch Documentary School. It is true that water and the famous Dutch skies that inspired the 17th century Dutch painters are images that are very present in the Dutch documentaries of this period — and this parallel is even the theme of John Fernhout’s Sky over Holland — but this was not because it was learned at school. Post-war documentary existed mainly thanks to government commissions, often financed through the Marshall Plan. Although the different filmmakers had different film styles, we can see that rhythm and film rhyme are major elements in their documentaries; elements that can justify to some extent the notion of “school”.

With time moving on and with the advent of the Nouvelle Vague, television and lightweight cameras that gave way to Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité, the second generation of Dutch documentarists, with Haanstra and van der Horst as the main characters, was more and more criticised. Their “cinéma de papa” gave too much of a romantic vision on Dutch society, glorifying the heroic struggle against water, but not giving much attention to the human beings behind those heroes. In the sixties — the post-war reconstruction being well advanced — socio-political issues became more important. This change in vision was the drive for a new generation of filmmakers and becomes very apparent in the work of Johan van der Keuken. But van der Keuken’s work did not receive the recognition it has since the eighties. The documentaries that most characterised the Dutch film were produced by a group of younger filmmakers, affiliated to the VPRO broadcasting organisation.
The changes in socio-political awareness and the technological developments that characterised the sixties created the fertile growing bed of the VPRO documentaries that were produced from the early seventies onwards. With Hans Keller as one of the main driving forces, VPRO presented an other image of Dutch society. Not the cosiness of Bert Haanstra (who’s candid camera filmed Zoo and Alleman (The Human Dutch), or the heroism of van der Horst’s reconstruction films, but a reflection and analysis of the Dutch society. VPRO was not afraid to make its spectators look into a mirror that reflected an image less romantic than the one they were used to see in cinema or on television. But at the same time the filmmakers did not forget the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking. Although heavily influenced by the new tendencies of Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité, they kept some elements of the “Dutch School” and developed a style that did not avoid irony. This was reflected in the series Het Gat van Nederland. What was maybe more important however, was their new form of journalism that did not privilege important people like ministers or the Royal family, but treated them on an equal level with “the common man”. It is especially with the evening filling film Vastberaden, maar soepel en met mate (Steadfast, but flexible and with moderation, 1974) that Hans Keller, Henk Hofland and Hans Verhagen introduced a new kind of historiography in documentary filmmaking: not concentrating on the big events and important dates, but relaying personal eye-witness accounts of both decision makers as of the man on the street. Using amateur footage — since “official” footage was mainly showing the Royal family — it gave a complete different and ambiguous image of the involvement of the Dutch during the war. One million people were watching this four-hour long Dutch version of The Sorrow and the Pity.

Today’s Dutch documentary filmmaking bears the traces of the different movements depicted above. When not too much formatted by television, Dutch documentarists give much care to their film style, the aesthetic aspects of documentary filmmaking, but at the same time keep the eye on their subjects: the human aspects and the way of portraying people that became so much on the foreground with the VPRO movement is very apparent in the later films of Johan van der Keuken for instance, and more recently in the films of Heddy Honigman. The different programmes that make up Lussas’ Doc history try to sketch some of those different movements that characterised, and still characterises, Dutch documentary, and make up a unique programme, of which some of the films never crossed the Dutch border.

Kees Bakker

Guests : invité : Bert Hogenkamp (historien du cinéma documentaire)