On Sunday night the 7th of January 2001 Johan van der Keuken, the internationally acclaimed Dutch filmmaker /photographer died in Amsterdam. At the end of November 2000 he received the prestigious Bert Haanstra Oeuvre Prijs (Award), named after another illustrious Dutch filmmaker. (‘Fanfare’).
At least van der Keuken, who is much more valued abroad,especially in cinephile France, got the recognition he so thoroughly deserves in his own country. Although he has won earlier three Golden Calves at the Dutch Film Festival in Utrecht.
A couple of years ago I saw Johan van der Keuken in the National Film Theatre, where he spoke about his film ‘Face Value’ (91). A press-photographer walked in to the cinema and van der Keuken immediately asked him his name and showed an interest in his work. That is typical for this filmmaker, who always tried to make the impersonal personal.
When he was 17 years old he already published a photo-book called ‘We are Seventeen’, portraying sad looking classmates from his Montesori School. Later followed by two other photo-books: ‘Behind Glass’ and ‘Paris Mortel’. A year later van der Keuken moved toParis, where he studied at the famous IDHEC film school. His debut-film ‘Paris a l’Aube’ (58) was a love-letter to Paris. In France van der Keuken has always been seen as one of the great ‘cineasts’. He said once that it is difficult to be recognised in France among the cine-literate , but if they do eventually, you belong to their‘club’ for life.
Back in Holland he impressed by making short portraits like‘Blind Child’ and ‘Beppie’. He was a good friend of photographer Ed van der Elsken (now recognised as an influential photographer),who also lived in Paris for a while and did the photography for ‘Beppie’. Van der Keuken made three films on the poet and painter Lucebert. Among his friends were the Dutch writers Remco Campert, Gerrit Kouwenaar en Bert Schierbeek. The free style musician Willem Breuker often wrote the scores for his films, starting in the Seventies. Those artists have influenced van der Keuken’swork, and it’s very likely that at this time he developed his free-style, associative and intuitive style of filming. Van der Keuken has never seen himself as a documentarist pur sang, anyway.
In his speech at the Bert Haanstra Award ceremony Van der Keuken quotes the earlier mentioned writer Bert Schierbeek: “There are many who have the voice, but only a few who hear him.” Van der Keuken: “For people who hears that voice, the projects they undertake widen from news item to art. Words and images in themselves are not sufficient, when one tries to seize the loneliness and extase of human life and to reconcile the irreconcilable.
New combinations are necessary of pictures, sound, words, music, actions, places and stories, the interchangeof all these elements form a breathtaking interplay.”
A turning point in van der Keuken’s career came in 1985, when he was diagnosed with intestine cancer. Before that he made political leftwing engaged documentaries like ‘The Flat Jungle’, ‘DiaryNorth-South’ and ‘I love Dollars’.
He didn’t take any longer all the suffering of the globe on his shoulders. Van der Keuken about this: “In the past ,until ‘I love Dollars’ I had to understand how the world worked. After my illness I let that go, now I only understand image for image, which I work with in the editing , making something in connection with other images.” He arguably made his best films in the Eighties and Nineties: ‘The Eye Above The Well’, ‘Face Value’, ’Moved Copper’ and his last film ‘The Long Holiday’. All together Van der Keuken made fifty films.
Another fragment from the Bert Haanstra speech: Johan van der Keuken:” Film hasit’s origins at the Fair andthat should stay that way. But is that Fair not situated at themarshy country behind thechurch, the temple and themosque? Just passed the warehouse, the town hall and the meeting centre. Not far from the concert hall, the theatre, the party- centre and the police- station, the youth-centre and the disco, yes the whole community full of “allochtonen” (foreigners) and “autochtonen” (originalDutch), … homeopaths and psychopaths, who all run around or are stuck in a traffic- jam, restless in search of…. the meaning of life. The filmmaker is there, I think, to make something of this confusion visible, but also something of that meaning. And he does that bycombining technique, moneyand play into art.”
When Van der Keuken was criticised once by journalistsof a lack of clarity and a comprehensive vision in his films, he got angry, replying: “ in fact what you are saying is, take my hand and guide me through the film, but I don’t do that, I resisted to do that all my life. I don’t have to show everything! ”
And rightly so, it’s probably a typical Dutch need to have everything explained and made understandable in a rational and educational clear way. But people who work with their intuition don’t let themselves pigeon- hole like that.
Or to put it differently: " Better one drop of art, than a sea of knowledge."
It’s a sad fact that the best people often die first, like Tarkovski, Kieslowski and now van der Keuken. We will miss his gentle eye, his genuine touch and most of all his warm compassion. But his films will live on and a small consolation will be a tributeto Johan van der Keuken at the coming International Film Festival in Rotterdam.