In October 1998, Johan van der Keuken heard very bad news from his friend radiologist: the tumor had metastasized from the prostate to other organs. Since prognoses gave him only a few more years to live, he decided to spend the remaining precious time with his wife Nosh van der Lely, who had been his companion on his travels around the globe. They start another journey together, in order to ‘observe and listen’ to the world just a bit more. They take a small digital camera with them, as well as an Aaton film camera. Their adventures are tarnished by the news of his immediate death. Later, in postproduction, they transfer the material to a 35mm film. It becomes more interesting when van der Keuken finds a new medicine which drastically improves his chances to fight the disease. The film becomes a true ode to life here.
Johan van der Keuken (1938-2001) was one of the most renowned Dutch documentary film makers, along with Joris Ivens and Bert Haanstra. At the age of 12 Van der Keuken, son of a high school teacher, learnt the groundrules of photography from his grandfather. In 1955 he published his first photo book Wij zijn 17 (We are 17), in which he presented portraits of youngsters of his own generation. The book met with enormous critical acclaim and was soon reprinted. In 1956 Van der Keuken went to Paris to attend courses at the film school IDHEC. Together with his fellow student, the American James Blue, he made a short film Paris a` l’Aube (Paris by Dawn, 1960), in which sought to breathe new life into the established genre of the ‘city symphony’. As Van der Keuken put it at the time: ‘No story, just plasticity’. It was typical of his approach that he set out to challenge the prevailing standards of the time. The films of the so-called ‘Dutch Documentary School’, whose best known protagonists were Bert Haanstra and Herman van der Horst, were characterised by rhythmic editing, unusual camera angles, contrapuntal use of sound, and the presentation of human beings as metaphors.
It was with the help of the television, the medium which was despised by many in the film making community, if not seen as the deadly enemy, that Van der Keuken would be able to develop his own film style during the course of the 1960’s. For the small VPRO broadcasting organisation he first made a series of four portraits of artists, then a film about what it means to be blind (Blind Kind / Blind Child, 1964), followed by a portrait of a spontaneous young working-class girl (Beppie, 1965) and another portrait, Herman Slobbe (1966), about an extremely talented blind young boy who he had met while making Blind Kind. In these films Van der Keuken experimented with 16mm camera techniques, synch sound and dramaturgy. In Herman Slobbe he presented the blind boy as ‘a form’, which he had filmed by using light and putting him in (or outside) the frame.
Just like some of his Amsterdam film colleagues (such as Louis van Gasteren and Ed van der Elsken) Van der Keuken was infl uenced by modern Dutch literature and by jazz music. In Big Ben (1967) he presented a moving portrait of the legendary American tenor saxofonist Ben Webster, who was living in Amsterdam at the time. In Een Film voor Lucebert (A Film for Lucebert, 1967) he could give free rein to his admiration for the work of the famous Dutch poet and painter Lucebert, who had been closely involved in the Cobra movement in the late forties and early fifties. Later he would devote two other films to Lucebert.
In 1968 Van der Keuken joined a film team headed by Van Gasteren, which went to cover the civil war in Nigeria (Report from Biafra). The trip opened his eyes: he came to the conclusion that from now on he had to face the social problems in the world. Hence politics were to become more important in Van der Keuken’s work. In Tijdgeest (Spirit of the Time, 1968) he examined the contemporary youth culture which ranged from hippies and dropouts to political demonstrators, by bringing together carefully composed images (Van der Keuken never stopped making photographs and that showed in his films) with seemingly typical documentary film footage. In Snelheid 40-70 (Velocity 40-70) Van der Keuken used the images of Swedish match boxes fl ying as squadrons over the Netherlands in order to cause alineation and thus offer the spectator the chance to develop new views on the Second World War, which had so traumatised his native country in general and Van der Keuken’s own generation in particular. The film was made in collaboration with poet Gerrit Kouwenaar, another representative of modern literature in the Netherlands. Similarly he would later team up with writer Bert Schierbeek for the North-South trilogy (1972-74), three films on the relationship between rich and poor within the industrialised world and between the rich and the poor countries in the world.
Van der Keuken’s special relationship with VPRO television produced not only feature documentaries like the three North-South films, but also some quite surprising shorts. A good example is Het Leesplankje (The Reading Lesson, 1973), in which Van der Keuken uses the familiar images of a Dutch pedagogical device to make a link with the generals’ putsch in Chile. Thus innocent images of sheep, fire and sister are connected with the emotionally much more charged images of riots, a Salvador Allende speech and Pinochet’s take-over. The film was made for VPRO’s omnibus programme series Gat van Nederland (Hole of the Netherlands, 1973- 74), to which the filmmaker contributed too with Vakantie van een filmer (Film maker’s Holiday, 1974). Next he made a series of feature-length documentaries that were ‘commissioned’ by organisations as diverse as the Netherlands Palestine Defence Committee (De Palestijnen / The Palestinians, 1975), the Association for the Protection of the Wadden Sea (De Platte Jungle / The Flat Jungle, 1978) and the Milky Way Cultural Centre in Amsterdam (De Beeldenstorm / Iconoclasm – A Storm of Images, 1982). But instead producing a hymn of praise to the commissioning body as was usually the case in such films, Van der Keuken approached the subject critically. He always worked with a minimal crew, with often included his wife Noshka van der Lely. But it was in the cutting roo that his films would really take shape in an intense dialogue with editors such as Fred van Dijk and Jan Dop.
By the late 1970s Van der Keuken’s work was discovered by the leading French filmjournal Cahiers du Cinéma. Later he would receive recognition in the United States, Canada and Germany, while in his native country he was awarded among others with the Dutch Culture Award in 1988 and the Bert Haanstra Oeuvre Award in 2000. But his films only earned him a precarious living, while in the mid-1980s he started to struggle with his health. Still, between 1986 and 1996 he made some of his most impressive films, such as I love $ (1986), Het Oog boven de Put (The Eye above the Well, 1988), Face Value (1991), Bewogen Koper (Brass Unbound, 1992) and the cinematographic diagnosis of his home town Amsterdam Global Village (1996). In these (often lengthy) documentaries managed to combine an analytical view on the subject matter (as abstract as money, music, society) with powerful images, whose effect he put into question at the same time. Although involved by the direct style, Van der Keuken was no adherent to the ‘fl y-on-the-wall’ school of film making. In his later films he would for example ask his protagonists to repeat a gesture or a statement, as he was looking for a deeper truth hidden behind the habits of human beings.
In the 1990s he returned to the short film form with films like Sarajevo Film Festival (1993) and To Song Fotostudio (1997). He also experimented with multimedia exhibitions. Furthermore he oversaw the publication of several books with his own photos and texts (he had had his own column ‘From the World of the Small Self- Employed’ in the Dutch filmjournal Skrien since 1977). In 1998 Van der Keuken was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He made a moving documentary about the struggle to combat his illness. The film was in fact a road movie following Van der Keuken all over the globe, consulting healers and medical specialists. While he normally swore by the Aaton film camera, he had bought a small digital camera for this project, as the former might be too wieldy for him. When De Grote Vakantie (The Long Holiday) was premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival, which had always championed his work and that of some of his closest friends, it looked like new medication would help. But it turned out not to be the case. Van der Keuken remained active during the last months of his life, as much as his physical condition allowed him, sorting out among others his enormous photo archive. Johan van der Keuken passed away on 7 January 2001.
De grote vakantie
2000, 0' 142'', color, 35 mm
Johan van der Keuken
Johan van der Keuken
Johan van der Keuken
Pieter van Huystee Film & TV