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Johan Van Der Keuken Complete Collection, Volume 2
Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken is the focus of this second volume of special films, which are less formal documentaries than 'living observances' of life as seen by the filmmaker. The films are van der Keuken's subjective/objective take on the world, as he often stages action and carefully molds the visual content filmed on portable 35mm equipment, with sound recorded by his wife and assistant, Noshka Van der Lely. Next to the famous Joris Ivens, he's considered the greatest Dutch documentary filmmaker.
Some of van der Keuken's earlier work embraced conventional documentary subjects, such as blind children. The connecting thread in these later films is an ethnographic study of life as it is lived, especially in his home city of Amsterdam. Instead of looking at architecture or grand civic plans, van der Keuken studies ordinary citizens, many of which are immigrants from Holland's traditional colonies in South America, Africa and the East Indies. Whereas ordinary documentaries tend to see these people in terms of a social problem, van der Keuken views them with an all-embracing humanity that transcends the concept of diversity.
Johan van der Keuken's films are never slow-paced; he instills them with interior rhythms and keeps his subject matter in movement at all times. Normal film time seems to be adjusted to "van der Keuken time", wherein every cut to an unusual subject will soon be explained with further illuminating material. Commentary and narration are infrequent or absent altogether. By organizing his filmic fabric into simple mini-stories, van der Keuken keeps his 'narratives' on track. It's an entertaining, pleasing style that frames the lives in progress before his camera in human dimensions. All of his 'characters' have problems but appear to be managing their affairs just the same. van der Keuken's portraits of humanity remain at the intimate level.
The Johan Van Der Keuken: Complete Collection, Volume 2 consists of three discs. Augmenting the director's work are several documentary films about van der Keuken, taken by others.
Amsterdam Global Village (1996, 229 minutes) On an expansive canvas, van der Keuken follows the rhythm of a city energized by its immigrants. The male half of a Dutch couple is an immigrant from Bolivia; we see his young son being born and then travel with him to visit his mother living in extreme poverty on a hillside back in the old country. The same pattern is repeated with several other transplanted Hollanders, as with some Africans selecting fabrics for a tribal gathering in an Amsterdam meeting hall. A Chechnian immigrant now organizing relief agencies returns to his war-torn country to find his hometown destroyed and his mother and aunts huddled in fear against Russian murder raids. Finally, a Holocaust victim recalls her miraculous survival after visiting an apartment she lived in as a young woman, now occupied by a sympathetic African family. All of these lives and other incidental 'happenings' in the city (a fireworks celebration for St. Nicholas' Day, an artist's photo shoot) are connected by a young Moroccan messenger's motorcycle criss-crossings through the Amsterdam streets. He's due to graduate to van deliveries but is too happy with his informal lifestyle of drugs and meeting friends in the park.
Brass Unbound (1993, 106 minutes) A joyous film comparing indigenous brass bands in Nepal, Surinam, Africa and the East Indies. Often using homemade instruments, the Oom-pah-pah bands show the influence of European colonization (along with the missionaries) but also the cultural assimilation and transformation of the European music. Ends with a charming 'battle of the bands' spread across the globe.
Sarajevo Film Festival (1993, 14 minutes) Twenty months into the siege of Sarajevo, van der Keuken attends an improvised film festival and follows a nervous female festival attendee as she returns to her unstable home life. Contains an unforgettable scene of two women trying to prepare a subsistence vegetable patch, repeatedly crouching as automatic weapons fire echoes off the buildings around them.
Time/Work (1999, 11 minutes) Another compilation film collects images of people at work from van der Keuken's 35 years of filmmaking, comparing rural labor with industrialized and office work. A tightly edited little document.
Johan Van Der Keuken (1999, 52 minutes) Thierry Noel's full-length docu allows van der Keuken to explain his philosophy of filmmaking, which goes against the Godardian principle that film is Truth 24 times a second. All filmmaking is artifice, van der Keuken reasons, and his job is to create an autonomous filmic space-time for the communication of ideas. van der Keuken discusses his editing style, choice of subjects and rocky career: between roughly 1966 and 1976 his films were considered irrelevant and were rejected by most film festivals.
To Sang Fotostudio (1997, 33 minutes) On a modest business street in Amsterdam, a Chinese photographer and his wife take portraits of the locals, all of whom seem to be immigrants as well. The business of negotiating the photo poses crosses language barriers; everyone's in a good mood when they want their pictures taken.
Living With Your Eyes (1997, 55 minutes) This docu by Ramón Gieling follows van der Keuken around during the production of To Sang Fotostudio, examining his shooting methods. There's nothing vérité about it; van der Keuken stages many actions and works around his non-actors when they cannot be made to ignore the camera. But key scenes, like To Sang's ritualistic set-ups for the portraits, are allowed to play out as they would in real life.
Amsterdam Afterbeat (1996, 16 minutes) This rather minor effort simply tacks together all of the post-shot bits where van der Keuken pans over to Noshka Van der Lely to capture her striking the wind sock on her boom microphone, thus enabling synchronization in post production. It's sort of a fast tour through hundreds of shots and comes off as little more than a novelty.
Interview (2001, 35 minutes) Thierry Noel interviewed the filmmaker five times for his Johan Van Der Keuken; this is the entire fifth interview taken in Paris, when van der Keuken knew he had terminal cancer.
Johan van der Keuken's films are civilized and humanistic in conception; despite his cinematic theorizing, warmer values dominate. His subjects are mostly likeable and even the coolest customers reveal laudable motivations. The Chechnian aid executive, for instance, impresses us as an aloof self-made man until he returns to the rubble of his homeland. van der Keuken records things as they are. Youthful citizens take drugs and live unstable lives. Immigration may not be examined as a social problem but we do get the idea that disadvantaged citizens in the old Dutch colonies are eager to get on the legal path to Holland, where the social system guarantees a basic quality of living.
Critics tout van der Keuken's filmic philosophies but it's perhaps better to stress the entertainment value in his work. The sly Brass Unbound seems entirely disorganized until one realizes the essential similarity of four or five brass bands scattered all over the globe; when they're editorially combined in a medley of takes on the song Tipperary, a droll hilarity ensues. van der Keuken also looks at his beloved city with a wide-eyed sense of wonder. A mysterious sequence at the end of Amsterdam Global Village silently follows a series of couples as they make love, without any explanation except that this too is part of the life of a great city. It's quite beautiful.
Facets Video's 3-DVD Johan Van Der Keuken: Complete Collection, Volume 2 are beautiful transfers of these color films, produced and presented by numerous private and state European funding agencies. Audio is clear and the various languages spoken are subtitled in French, English, Dutch and Spanish. Menus are simple and elegant.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Johan van der Keuken The Complete Collection Volume 2 rates:
Packaging: 3 keep cases
Reviewed: April 24, 2007
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