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Johan Van Der Keuken Retrospective

This year Doclisboa partners with Cinemateca Portuguesa-Museu do Cinema, and promotes a retrospective dedicated to the Dutch filmmaker and photographer Johan van der Keuken, who died prematurely in 2001. Author of an intense cinematic work ranging for four decades, Van der Keuken worked in the crossing between narration and reality, exploring the possibilities of film as perception art. In October we shall be able to discover the work of someone who always refused the “documentary-maker” label people kept on using about him, ultimately stating that every film is fiction, although he saw this dichotomy as inoperative.
In the early 1950’s he started his relationship with image through photography. At 17 he publishes his first book, Wij zijn 17 [We are 17], followed by Achter Glas [Behind Glas]. Some years later, not very interested in the film studies course he was taking at IDHEC, he decides to make some off-school experiments. He will direct his first film, Paris à l’Aube (1960), with his first camera, a spring-wound Bolex. The discovery of hand-held camera shooting is the moment when films are finally seen as an expression. The physicality of the filming gesture – taking the camera off the tripod, feeling its weight, filming at eye level – is therefore crucial to his cinema that quite often – and not by mere chance – watches bodies in motion.
His films live within the dynamic relationship between motion and editing. That is why it is not surprising the reference to the avant-garde documentaries from the 1920’s and 1930’s, pointing out the introduction of voice and the drifting to what he describes as “commented pictorialism”. Apart from the constant references to Herman van der Horst, as a Dutch director, we must also recall Joris Ivens or Bert Haanstra, for the editing musical construction and for the exhaustive exercise of looking.
He works in the reality/perception relation, and he insists that the temporal construction is what separates film from past events occurring before the camera. An attentive and engaged artist of his time, Van der Keuken communicates with a vast array of creators in various fields. We must mention Big Ben: Ben Webster in Europe, a syncopated film about the work, the man, and the body of this extraordinary saxophone player. His relationship with jazz in all its dimensions – both political and social, but also pertaining to rhythm and improvisation – has a strong influence in Van der Keuken’s films, particularly in his editing. Jazz will also be the theme for his 1977 Maarten en de Contrabas [Maarten and the Double Bass], and he will co-operate with the musician and composer Willem Breuker in over a dozen films from 1966 (Een Film voor Lucebert) [A Film for Lucebert] to1994 (On Animal Locomotion).
Van der Keuken adopts experimentation processes from music and from the other 20th century avant-garde arts. However this does not bring him closer to the so-called “experimental cinema” he believes to be pointless. Quite the opposite, particularly in what improvisation is concerned “I am an improvising filmmaker. Images may also be improvised. To improvise or not to improvise is a much more meaningful option than, for instance, the one between documentary and fiction. This second opposition does not work for me. To improvise, however, is of utmost importance.”
Yet another example is his long-lasting relationship with the poet and painter Lucebert, from the COBRA avant-garde movement, that originated the triptych Lucebert, Tijd en Afscheid [Lucebert, Time and Goodbye], started by the young director in 1962 and finished after Lucebert’s death in 1994, when the filmmaker was much more mature. The joint presentation of those three short films is therefore both the artist’s portrait in motion, and a journey through Van der Keuken’s films, in their aesthetic radicalism and deepest humanity.
Van der Keuken searches for new possible forms and narrations in films directed by his contemporaries: the jump cut in À bout de souffle [Breathless], by Godard, Alain Resnais’ innovative story-telling in Hiroshima mon Amour, among others, the onset of synchronous sound in outdoor shooting in Les Maîtres Fous [The Mad Masters] and in Moi, un Noir [Me, a Black], by Jean Rouch.
“We must not forget that until the arrival of cinema vérité, documentary films were an image with music, a bruitage, or a non-synchronous comment.” [Mes Caméras, in Aventures d’un Regard, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1998]
Sound in films is paramount to Van der Keuken because it is sound that bestows tri-dimension to image. On the one hand, the layered complex sound editing and, on the other, the timeline composition work linking editing to the musical score are distinctive marks of his work.
Discussing the formal and ethic propositions of Rouch’s cinéma vérité, particularly the uninterrupted time continuum, the “purity” of sequence shots, Van der Keuken believes editing should be the realistic construction of perception. In his pursuit of an editing ethic – and not of a moral one – Van der Keuken finger points the existing Puritanism in documentary films that does not exist in fiction. De Tijd Geest [The Spirit of Time], from 1968, radically annuls the content’s hierarchic relationships: present/past/future, real/unreal, here/there. “In order to be able to describe perceptions, one has to destroy hierarchised emotions. (…) That demands thinking within Time.” [in Vrij Nederland, Dec. 1968]
“I realised my way of thinking is quite binary: «and/and» rather than «or/or»: interior and exterior, beings and things, north and south… A binarism that instigates editing.” [Photographe et Cinéaste, 1984].
The utopian rupture between hierarchic relationships in films should not be separated from the constant aesthetic attention paid to the world and from the political view upon all things, favouring the other, the small, the poor, the children, and the damned. Once again perception is at the core of the filmmaker’s gesture, who questions the limits of his own body in films about blindness – Blind Kind [Blind Child], more focused upon physicality and the blind children liberation movement, and Herman Slobbe/Blind Kind II [Herman Slobbe/Blind Child II], a clearly political movie denouncing social segregation – or about deafness: the Dutch workers in De Nieuwe Ijstijd [The New Ice Age] (1974), in opposition and matching the poor people from Lima, Peru, during the times of political changes in the last chapter of his triptych Noord-Zuid [North-South]. Duality therefore does not result in a conceptual simplification but in a demultiplication of dualities, expressed in a kaleidoscopic editing, which reflects the world’s intense complexity instead.
This complexity and its temporal ramifications lead Van der Keuken to work in the length. Not the one of the shots and internal continuums, but that of life itself, within the films unfolding over time – as the afore-mentioned Lucebert… or the triptych Noord-Zuid – and developing over time, or within the symphonic, après la lettre, Amsterdam Global Village (1996).
Life, bodies, and intimate gestures are always there in his films, either as a study subject in On Animal Locomotion, or sneaking in and breaking all logical speeches in Amsterdam Global Village – a couple bathes a baby, a sexual intercourse scene… Van der Keuken is present in every gesture, in every motion, and in every zoom. In spite of not being what one may call a “first person-filmmaker”, in his over fifty films he sometimes acts as engine body-voice, as in Vakantie van de Filmer [Filmmaker’s Holiday], a film where he gives an outstanding explanation of his work process, the relationships he establishes between intimacy and the spectators, and between historical events and daily life. In his last film, De Grote Vakantie [The Long Holiday] (2000), Van der Keuken is aware of his incurable cancer and inevitable death, and intertwines footage from his last trip around the world with footage from his medical treatments, searching for the answer to his own mortality in the struggle for survival of his human brothers. “Je est un Autre” [I is Another]. This statement by Rimbaud could well be the motto for this filmmaker’s work, who stares at the other with love, and offers himself as body-voice and thought, film after film, although in his case he could be multiplied into “I is all the others”, both alive and still. Van der Keuken’s travels to Palestine, Biafra, Libya, and South America, among many other countries, are journey towards the Third World, the world of the poor among the poorest. However above all he is a filmmaker who cares for the others, for his neighbour, even for the one who comes from faraway lands – as Ben Webster touring Europe, or a Vietnamese theatre company performing in Amsterdam (Vietnam Opera, 1973). As Jean-Paul Fargier puts it: “Johan van der Keuken is the neighbourhood filmmaker. Or plainly a filmmaker who looks around him.” [Sans Images Préconçues, in Cahiers du Cinéma nº 289, 1978]. From Vier Muren [Four Walls] (1965), about Amsterdam’s housing crisis, to To Sang Fotostudio (1997), portrait of a small local photography shop, the filmmaker’s city is always there – not forgetting the obvious Amsterdam Global Village.
Beppie (1965) also talks about Amsterdam and its inhabitants. It is a portrait of a 10-year old girl, or – even better – a portrait of how the world is perceived by the child whose film is named after her. One of the most popular films by Van der Keuken in Holland it is also the one in which he most clearly states how he somehow relates to the children, young people who are certainly more free than the adults. Van der Keuken filmed children all his life, even in the inevitably gloomy farewell to his friend Lucebert. It is undoubtedly in their eyes and in their way to see the world that he finds the fraternity and the freedom he relentlessly searches.

Tiago Afonso