Online Selection
Sabzian Selects (Again): Week 19
Mon 29 Mar 2021, 0:00 to Sun 4 Apr 2021, 23:45
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Twenty years ago, Johan van der Keuken passed away. On the occasion of his birthday – he would have turned 83 on April 4th – we dedicate this week’s selection to the Dutch documentary filmmaker by drawing your attention to three iconic films from his vast oeuvre.

Van der Keuken’s work was shot through with paradoxes. As a filmmaker, he approached his practice both with a high degree of reflectiveness, writing countless texts on editing, camerawork and documentary cinema, and an abiding pragmatism – his films are deeply determined by his physical presence as a cameraman. Equipped with a camera on his shoulder, he threw himself into reality, confronting him with what was happening at that specific moment in front of his lens. To Van der Keuken, his texts carried a double function. On the one hand, they prevented formal or ethical problems from permeating his actual filmmaking. On the other hand, they served to protect his images and sounds from anecdotal interpretation. Something that happened to him for the first time when Blind kind [Blind Child] (1964) was shown on television. Van der Keuken was reproached for not portraying the blind as merely people in need.

Van der Keuken always made his documentaries with a great consciousness of form, highlighting the material aspects of filmmaking. Film, he stated, is “a beam of light on a screen. And what is transmitted in that bombardment of light on a screen is always fiction.” With the world as his subject, he also resisted the pretension that his films presented an objective picture of reality. This was the project to which Van der Keuken devoted almost his entire oeuvre: how could one, with images and sounds, convey something about reality without reducing it to something unambiguous? Van der Keuken would compare his documentary practice to Cubism, looking for solutions to represent the multiplicity of reality. As observer and participant, a univocal view of reality is by definition impossible, Van der Keuken insisted time and again.

With camera constantly at the ready, film and life were deeply interwoven in his work. In Vakantie van de filmer [The Filmmaker's Holiday] (1974), holiday footage becomes part of a reflection on death and memory. Like an alchemist, Van der Keuken reformulates his own aesthetic principles and shows how they link up with his personal world. His last film De grote vakantie [The Long Holiday] (2002) – a digitally shot film in which a terminally ill Van der Keuken looks back on his oeuvre/life – is the natural result of this symbiosis: “If I can’t make an image, I’m dead.”

Blind kind [Blind Child] (1964) is available via Documentaire sur grand écrain and on Tënk.
Vakantie van de filmer [The Filmmaker's Holiday] (1974) is available on La Cinetek.
De grote vakantie [The Long Holiday] (2002) is available on Tënk and Eye Film Player.

FILM
Blind kind
,
,
25’

How does a blind child percieve reality ? In order to explore this mystery, Johan Van der Keuken spent two months in a specialised institution in the Netherlands. Blind kind reveals a world it is difficult to imagine: the unending struggle of the blind to remain in contact with reality.

 

“Maar de eerste film die wat verder ging in zijn verhouding met de buitenwereld was Blind kind. Ik was op dat onderwerp gekomen door een boek dat door het blindeninstituut uitgegeven was en waarin beschreven werd hoe blinden zich een beeld van de wereld vormen en hoe ze de wereld moeten veroveren vanuit een positie die noodgedwongen egocentrisch is – ik vond dat indrukwekkend en eigenlijk onvoorstelbaar. Want daar staat hij, aan de grond genageld, en wat er om hem heen is, dat moet hij al tastend opbouwen en dus is de wereld nooit wijder dan zijn arm lang is.

Hij heeft ook oren ...

Inderdaad, het oor is erg belangrijk voor het opbouwen van hun wereldbeeld. Maar ik geloof dat er pas een verband kan ontstaan tussen het geluid en de tastzin – hoe de dingen aanvoelen – als ze eerst lijfelijk, lichamelijk onderzocht zijn. Dus moet de blinde steeds weer uitgaan van zijn eigen lichaam en zijn wereld stap voor stap uitbreiden. Dat is precies omgekeerd aan onze manier van waarnemen: wij zijn in staat onmiddellijk signalen van alle kanten op te vangen, van ver weg of van dichtbij, en daarmee de situatie waarin we ons bevinden te structureren. Dat gaf me het idee, dat je niet alleen te maken had met een ander beeld van de werkelijkheid, maar met een werkelijkheid die anders is, omdat hij samengesteld is uit andere gegevens. En door te proberen daar iets over te zeggen, kon je het film maken definiëren aan de hand van dat ontbrekende element. In dat opzicht kun je ook spreken van een gat. Het ging er dus om een gat te vullen met beeld, het beeld tot zijn recht te laten komen door het niet-bestaande beeld.

Johan van der Keuken1

 

« Mais à part ça, le premier film avec un résultat plus complexe et plus de références à l’extérieur, c’est le premier Enfant aveugle [Blind kind]. J’étais venu à ce sujet par un bouquin publié par l’institution des aveugles où l’on décrivait la façon dont l’enfant aveugle se forme une réalité, une image du monde et - ce qui était assez impressionnant et même assez inimaginable - la façon dont il doit conquérir le monde à partir d’une position foncièrement égocentrique ; parce qu’il est là avec son corps et que ce qui est autour de lui se construit à partir du toucher et que le monde n’est donc jamais plus grand, ou plutôt ne va jamais plus loin que la longueur de son bras.

Il y a l’oreille...

Effectivement, l’oreille sert beaucoup à structurer le monde, mais je crois que les relations entre les qualités tactiles des choses et le son ne peuvent venir qu’une fois que cette réalité des choses a été explorée corporellement, physiquement. Alors l’aveugle doit toujours repartir de Herman Slobbe et Johan van der Keuken sa propre présence physique et élargir peu à peu le monde. C’est tout à fait le contraire de notre façon de fonctionner : nous sommes capables d’attraper instantanément des signaux venant de tous les côtés et de très loin aussi bien que de très près et, à partir de ces signaux, de structurer la situation dans laquelle nous nous trouvons. Alors cela m’a donné l’idée qu’il ne s’agit pas seulement d’une image différente de la réalité, mais vraiment d’une autre réalité, fondée sur d’autres données. Et justement, parler de cela permettait de définir le travail cinématographique par le manque. Là aussi, on pourrait parler d’un trou. Il s’agissait donc d’essayer de remplir un trou avec l’image, de faire valoir l’image par la non-existence de l’image. »

Johan van der Keuken2

FILM
Vakantie van de filmer
,
,
39’

In Vakantie van de filmer, van der Keuken brings together various audio and visual material: memories of an elderly married couple, personal holiday photos, the saxophonist Ben Webster, poems and a portrait of his grandfather who introduced him to the world of photography. A representation in which the various spaces flow together prompting reflection about the tension between film and photography, time standing still and the moving image. Van der Keuken revises and reformulates, like an alchemist, his own aesthetic principles and shows how these tie in with his own social environment.

 

“Het licht gaat aan. De foto is een herinnering. Ik herinner mij wat ik nu zie. Maar de film herinnert zich niks. De film gebeurt altijd nu. Ik kan het gezicht van de aarde niet zien. Ik kijk over de schouder van de aarde in het licht. Het licht ben ik zelf, onder andere.”

Johan van der Keuken in de voice-over epiloog

 

« On allume la lumière. La photo est un souvenir. Je me souviens de ce que je vois maintenant. Mais le film ne se souvient de rien. Le film se déroule toujours maintenant. Je ne puis voir le visage de la terre. Je regarde par-dessus son épaule dans le lumière. Et la lumière, c'est moi – parmi d'autres. »

Johan van der Keuken dans l'épilogue en voix-off

 

« Un de ces petits films qui sont des chefs-d'oeuvres inoubliables. »

Jean-Paul Fargier1

 

“What I am striving for in Filmmaker’s Holiday for example, as far as I am concerned as a person is to get to something which will explain the relativistic aspects of my life. On that level the problem is to have this possibility of relativity without stopping to speak socially – which is also a conflict. Because if you take a stand politically or socially you cannot afford relativity too often. On the other hand it is true that in the development of the individual he should acquire a certain degree of relativity in order to develop or see. Showing a clock is a matter of relativity. Putting it there and seeing that it is only a clock – and in between having the joy of speculation as to what it might mean. Also it’s fun. We shouldn’t forget that an element of play is important even in the most serious of subjects.

I want to see film aesthetics as a relative thing. If I have an aesthetic it functions in a relative way. It is a set of relationships – but as related to outside reality, its quite relative too. This is the core of the matter. The problem is not to annihilate yourself when you are confronted with ugly reality, but sometimes accept the fact that you do not have the power to solve all the problems – or make all the relationships come off.

In regards to Filmmaker’s Holiday, I wonder if it is possible to recover the purity of one’s own experience – my experience of making the film is now in the past but my seeing the film recovers the past – and recreates it, constantly negating to generate a new present – this for me is fundamental to film.”

Johan van der Keuken2

FILM
De grote vakantie
,
,
145’

In De grote vakantie Johan van der Keuken learns he only has a few years left to live after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. He and his wife Nosh decide to go on a long vacation to make a final film.

 

“Eens zullen ze genadeloos worden opgeruimd...

de beelden waar je in woont.”

Johan van der Keuken in de voice-over van de film

 

kijk,
ik weet het niet
ik was nog nooit dood
maar als je nou dood bent
wat zie je dan
wat zie jij nu wat ik niet zie
Want als de ogen zich sluiten
en het zicht naar binnen keert
waar ben ik dan
en jij?
en wij?

– Bert Schierbeek in De deur1

 

“In The Long Holiday, and to some degree, Last Words: My Sister Joke, van der Keuken’s experimental techniques and abstract use of (documentary) film language seems increasingly curtailed by the immediate reality of dying and death. Throughout The Long Holiday, most sequences attempt to record (immortalise) a given location, view, or ceremony and in so doing they also seem to disclose a desire to record the real, to capture a representation that is composed and continuous, stable and reliable. Even the film’s ‘painterly’ closing sequence of boats and barges trafficking in the bay seems to overstay its welcome, and begin to configure itself into a series of pictorial – photographic, even – clichés. At times, the film’s reliance on a conventional realist aesthetic is undermined by something more abstract (for example, the close shots of clinking porcelain tea-cups that seem to symbolise home and companionship as well as time and fragility, some of the intercutting, or the sequence in which he ‘remakes’ Vertigo in San Francisco with a small video camera and a photograph of Noshka, etc.) but by and large van der Keuken’s camera seems now to want to ‘photograph’ the world, framing images and assembling sequences in such a way as to counter the passing of everything, and the loneliness of the self in the strange company of its death. Perhaps, it is true that there are better times to face death than when you are actually dying and that your own death is something you can only encounter as you live your own life. Whatever may be the case, in films such as A Moment’s Silence or Lucebert: Time and Farewell, it does seem that van der Keuken’s avant-garde tendency and formal range could respond to experiences of general mourning and loss in ways that were increasingly impossible when that loss, and the inevitability of dying, emerged in a more immediate, intimate, and solitary form. A line from Lucebert comes to mind: ‘I reel off a small lovely rustling revolution/and I fall and I murmur and I sing.’”

Des O'Rawe2

 

De grote vakantie (Johan van der Keuken, 2000)