Les États généraux du film documentaire 2015 Doc History: The Netherlands

Doc History: The Netherlands

The first film by Coco Schrijber, In Motion (1994) paints the portrait of saxophonist David S. Ware and has a family resemblance to Big Ben Webster (1967) by Johan van der Keuken. The two films deal not only with the music but also the daily routine of these artists ‒ the first in his work as taxi driver, the second in his lodger’s apartment – as a way of presenting the careers of great jazzmen.
Johan van der Keuken, self-taught photographer, published his first book of photos when he was seventeen (in 1955). One year later on a scholarship he attended the Paris Idhec film school – “because there weren’t at that time any scholarships for people studying photography” – which he left two years later because he found the rules too constraining. Coco Schrijber for her part studied at the Rietveld Academie, the most prestigious fine arts school in the Netherlands, from which she was kicked out... Two non-conformists then? In any case, two filmmakers who cultivate a certain formal liberty in their documentaries.
Johan van der Keuken didn’t like being defined as a documentarian; he was a cineaste. Velocity 40–70 is an example. He refused to use archive images for this film nevertheless supposed to be a commemoration. He created situations, composed abstractions drawn from reality and juxtaposed images which apparently had nothing to do with the film’s “subject”. Not really classical documentary method. It is perhaps in this poetic freedom, in the importance given to the dimension of plasticity, that the film demonstrates its documentary power.
In another way and on another scale, Coco Schrijber’s Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies juxtaposes sequences which have no other apparent connections than those imagined by the film. She doesn’t play on abstractions but deals with an abstract subject, boredom, to confront it with reality. As in Velocity 40–70, we are less in a logic of explanation, a classic form of televisual documentary, than in a logic of association, closer to poetry. The two films ask the viewer to adopt an active attitude in order to extract their meaning. The necessity to create links, to bring together wildly heterogeneous elements, obliges us to go beyond the mere surface of image and sound, text and music. Forms of such freedom lend themselves to multiple interpretation.
These two films with comparable approaches can nonetheless be distinguished. Both X-ray portraits of our societies, each one of them gives an image of time, of their time. Velocity 40–70 is interested in change, or rather the absence of change, between 1940 and 1970 and takes on a political character. Van der Keuken even becomes a little preachy, as he often was in his films from the seventies. Where Johan van der Keuken takes explicit ideological and political positions in his film, Coco Schrijber chooses a form of objectivity and distance. Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies merely exposes the phenomena of our modern society: boredom, the routine of work which “sucks” all oxygen from our daily life, an obstinate fixation with apparently futile things, leaving us alone to face these questions: what should we be doing with our time? Do we escape in our work to avoid having to question the meaning of life?
Boredom as an escape, as a refusal to face, to resist a world “where a large number of people are manipulated by a small number holding excessive power”. This quote from van der Keuken concerning Velocity 40–70 is more relevant than ever.
Documentarians are constantly confronted by these questions of taking a position. How can we translate our political, societal, emotional commitment in a documentary? Should we maintain a certain distance?
Through these films, let us ask ourselves this question raised by one of the characters in Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies: “what will I be in ten, twenty, thirty years?” Let us think of those films that we have seen, that we still have to discover and let us answer along with van der Keuken (in Face Value): “I am a god... like everyone.”

Kees Bakker

Debate in the presence of Kees Bakker.