Country Focus: Belgio
The Netherlands - International Film Guide Survey
di Leo Bankersen
20/04/2009 - Do Dutch filmmakers look beyond their borders? The jury of the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht in September had its doubts, causing a bit of a stir by rhetorically asking themselves, 'Do some filmmakers from the Netherlands ever take a look at foreign films'. They expressed their dissatisfaction with the variable quality of content and production of the films they had to judge, suggesting that more should be done to keep Dutch cinema in step with international developments.
On the other hand, quite a few of the thirty or so feature films produced in 2008 found their inspiration or location in other countries. Five of them are (partly) set in Africa, while Pieter Verhoeff’s handsomely produced adventure of a young knight-to-be, The Letter of the King (De brief voor de koning), made good use of Schottish scenery. Ben Sombogaart, director of the Academy Award-nominated Twin Sisters, filmed his ambitious new drama, Bride Flight, about the emotional secrets of three young Dutch immigrant brides in New Zeland. Featuring fine performances from two generations of Dutch actresses, it attracted a large audience. Perhaps the most striking example of a Dutch filmmakers in search of adventure is David Verbeek, a young director fascinated by Asian cinema. Fresh from the Amsterdam Film Academy, he lived in Shangai for two years. There, he captured the anxieties of present-day adolescents in Shanghai Trance, in which three love stories criss-cross in a style that, even for a local audience, proved hard to distinguish from the works of his Chinese contemporaries. After limited release in the Netherlands, a Chinese distributor bought the rights to the film (in a censored version).
Another daring enterprise, albeit in a very different direction, is the children’s adventure story, The Seven of Dran – The Battle of Pareo Rock (De Zeven van Daran, de strijd om Pareo Rots). First-time director Lourens Blok attracted a little praise of his old-fashioned villains and a young hero attempting to prevent a tribal war in Africa, but the film at least displays a degree of daring and features its fair share of breathtaking African scenery. Made without the support of the usual funding bodies and with English dialogue, it is aimed firmly at the international market.
The Netherlands was modestly represented at major international festivals. Berlin’s youth competition selected Dana Nechushtan’s lively road movie Dunya & Desie, the Dutch entry for this year’s Academy Awards. It is about two teenage girls who face a turning point in their lives when their friendship is put to the test on a trip to Morocco, where Dunya’s parents live.
In Cannes, Margien Rogaar’s short film Breath (Zucht) was screened in side section and Jos van Ginkel’s short, Sand (Zand), was selected for the Venice Film Festival.
The Dutch auteurs’ films are not completely absent from the international scene either. Left (Links), a quirky low-budget love story by Froukje Tan, was selected for Pusan and a number of other festivals. Arno Dierickx’s Blood Brothers, based on a notorious murder case in the 1960s, was invited to the New Directors Competition in San Sebastiàn, while Pieter Kuijpers’ gripping thriller Nothing to Lose (TBS), with Theo Maassen scary in the lead as a mentally disturbed kidnapper, received a Best Film award in Philadelphia.
Mijke de Jong went to Locarno and Toronto withKatia’s Sister, a sensitive drama about a 13-year-old girl, neglected by her stripper sister and prostitute mother, who struggles from affection. Not as sharp as his previous film Stages, but still one of the highlights of the year.
The critics’ prize at the Netherlands Film Festival went to another small film, the highly original Calimucho by Eugenie Jansen. She used real circus people to improvise a drama, resulting in a fascinating blend of fiction and reality.
Two outstanding documentaries came from filmmakers with a foreign background. For Recycle, director Mahmoud al Massad went back to his former hometown, Zarqa in Jordan, the same place where notorious Al Qaida leader Al Zarqawincame from. There he found the material for this beautiful shot, unpredictable and humane film about a former mujahedeen, who is now trying to earn a living for his family by collecting cardboard.
Renowned documentaries Heddy Honigmann went back to her roots in Lima, Peru for El Olvido. In a deceptively relaxed way she integrates intimate portraits into a telling picture about the hardship of life under a succession of corrupt governments.
Another fine example of non-fiction is Carmen Meets Borat, the Dutch Academy Award entry for feature documentaries. Mercedes Stalenhoef went to the poor Romanian village which was used by Sacha Baron Cohen as stand-in for Kazakhstan in his comedy Borat.
There she filmed a sensitive portrait of the teenager Carmen dreaming of a better life, in the eantime registering the troublesome aftermath of Cohen’s intrusion.
2008 has been a year of optimism and concern. Dutch film seems to hold its ground at the box office. The market share is expected to reach 14-15%, a figure we haven’t seen in many years.
Although we did not see a smash hit like last year’s Love is All, the number of films that performed well appears to be on the rise. Most of these releases were lightweight fare, like springtime favorite Summer Heat (Zommerhitte), the directorial debut of actress Monique van de Ven. Based on a story by famous Dutch writer Jan Wolkers, it featured lots of sun, sex and crime.
One November release that will continue to perform well during 2009 is Martin Koolhoven’s Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter), which transforms a famous book for children into an adult story about a 14-year-old boy’s loss of innocence in the final days of Second World War. Hopes are also high for African-set thriller White Light, by Jean van de Velde. It stars Marco Borsato, arguably the Netherlands most popular singer.
Youth and family still constitute the solid base of Dutch popular film. Among the best in this genre are Dunya & Desie and The Letter for the King, as well as Nicole van Kilsdonk’s moving and funny How Do I Survive Myself? (Hoe overleaf ik mezelf?) about the growing pains of a 13-year-old girl, and Barbara Bredero’s Morrison Gets a Baby Sister (Morrison krijgt een zusje) in which a five-year-old fears a tragedy with the arrival of his baby sister.
Although the audience share for Dutch film is growing, the number of people who go to see the more artistic or specialist films is not. A small gem like Winter Silence by visual artist and first-time filmmaker Sonja Wyss, in which secrets of life unfold amidst Swiss mountains, even had a hard time finding a distributor.
Meanwhile the Netherlands Film Fund, which funds the majority of domestic releases, published a new policy plan called 'Room for Talent', as well as a reorganization plan that has to counteract past criticism of the Fund’s sometimes inefficient and not particularly transparent operations. However, as the budget of the Fund is unlikely to increase very much, significant changes are not expected. Will focus on the development of talent really be the key to seeing a Dutch film in competition in Cannes or another major festival, as Fund director Toine Berbers is hoping for? We’ll wait and see.