Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star
BEIRUT: "I am fine, standing comfortably between the police and student protestors."
Johan van der Keuken's remarks, made during his 2000 autobiographical documentary "The Long Holiday," accompany a still photo of him doing exactly what he describes. Somewhat later in the film, the filmmaker is in Kathmandu, Nepal, receiving some advice.
"Everyone suffers the same way," a Buddhist monk reassures him. The pain the filmmaker will suffer results from an accumulation of karma, he continues, and no amount of prayer will prevent that pain. "Better to pray for less pain in your next life, less pain for humanity ... Prayer," the monk concludes, "is like a horse. It can be led left or right."
Situated quite close to one another in the film, the two sequences could be a pr�cis of van der Keuken's work. For the next two Wednesdays, the Beirut Art Center is screening "Homage to Johan van der Keuken," a miniature retrospective of the Dutch auteur's internationally renowned, artistically inflected documentary films.
Critics have found in van der Keuken's work a unique mingling of political and avant-garde filmmaking traditions. Other dualities are evident as well.
A gifted photographer before he turned to the moving image, one is between van der Keuken's still photographs and his films. Another, mentioned by the filmmaker during "The Long Holiday," is that film's dialogue between the 16-mm film camera he could no longer carry and the video camera he used to shoot many of the film's sequences.
There are also two tendencies in van der Keuken aesthetic. At times his work examines the human condition in the global south. At others, it focuses on the more intimate realities of his family and friends. "The Long Holiday," the filmmaker's final work, which opened the screening cycle last Wednesday, captures both sides of his aesthetic.
"The Long Holiday" is premised on the filmmaker's impending death. In late 1998, his radiologist informed him that prostate cancer cells were multiplying in his body and that he would live only a few more years. His filmmaking career had taken van der Keuken and his wife around the world and the couple decide the best way to respond to the bad news is to devote what remains of their time together to travelling in scenic locations.
The film recounts the period following the diagnosis, roving from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to rural Bhutan and Burkina Faso, to San Francisco. Within the frames afforded by these locations, van der Keuken's camera veers from interviews with doctors offering suggestions on what he can do to keep himself alive, to representations of life elsewhere, to the mundane trinkets the filmmaker has collected over the course of his life - particularly the pair of antique china cups, one rocking, cradled by the other.
Given the film's premise, the spectator might assume it could only be tragic or maudlin. Yet "The Long Holiday" is engaging precisely because, throughout its 142-minutes, it exudes enthusiasm for life - both the filmmaker's fascination with capturing its mutability and the extremes to which he is willing to go to extend his own.
One of the last things van der Keuken says in this film, released the year before he died, is, "It looks like I'll be around for a long time."
"Homage to Johan van der Keuken" was conceived in conjunction with "Closer," the BAC's opening exhibition, and the center's mediatheque director Lamia Joeige, who curated the selection, savors being able to screen the work of a master whose work is virtually unknown in Lebanon.
"'Closer' was a reflection upon intimacy on the border between what's intimate and what's public," says Joreige. "How an artist can bring his own body or his own family to an artwork that becomes exhibited or screened. The first artists we invited to screen their work have all worked with these themes in a different manner," and van der Keuken's oeuvre worked such themes extensively.
Canadian film scholar Robert Daudelin, who introduced the "The Long Holiday," has pointed out that the Dutch photographer-cum-filmmaker was reared a Marxist and matured to banish any sort of prejudice from his view of the world. "He was convinced of the importance of telling what he saw," Daudelin said, "to observe well, to become impregnated with things."
The other four films Joreige has selected for this cycle evince how the filmmaker came to "The Long Holiday," as if by separate paths.
The cycle's final two films provide fine examples of the filmmaker directing his camera at the rest of the world. "The Eye above the Well," from 1988, introduces the audience to the material realities of life in the Southern Indian state of Karalla, as accompanied by the narrative of an ancient Hindu folk tale. Released in 1975, the year the Lebanese Civil War started, "The Palestinians" documents the ramifications of the Palestinian Revolution among Lebanon's refugee community.
This Wednesday's two films find their lyricism in a more familiar landscape. Prescient of "The Long Holiday," the intensely personal 1998 film "Last Words - My Sister Yoka," is comprised of a pair of sickbed interviews with a strong and talented woman on the verge of death. Van der Keuken's camera is so unsentimentally insistent on its subject that the spectator may well want to bring a hip flask along for after the screening.
His more lyrical 1974 documentary "The Filmmaker's Holiday" weaves a series of apparently divergent stories into a single visual narrative. Van der Keuken commences the film by introducing the audience to his father, a strict socialist and natural-born skeptic committed to the craft of photography who, the filmmaker says, never recovered from having his favorite camera stolen. The film proceeds to weave back and forth among several subjects.
One centers on an elderly couple living in the French countryside being visited by a young mother and her infant boy Tony. The ill old man in a beret - the former village mayor, son and grandson of the previous mayors - seems incapable of speech. His wife more than compensates for his glaring silence with her continuous monologue - "Well, what can you do?" she says at the end of each anecdote. "There it is!"
Other documentary threads involve an expat American jazz player named Ben Johnson - whom van der Keuken observed "blew rage out of silence." Other sequences feature segments from an earlier film featuring his wife and her sons. Other footage features Dutch poet Remco Campert, playing basketball. Joining all these disparate elements are the filmmaker's ruminations upon the nature of photograph, film and memory.
A French film critic once said film is the only medium that can capture the transition from life to death, van der Keuken says while his camera watches a calf being prepared for bleeding. "I've filmed the transition and it's taught me nothing. The transition from death to life is harder ..."
The Beirut Art Center's Homage to Johan Van Der Keuken continues this evening with the 39-minute "The Filmmaker's Holiday" (1974) and the 52-minute "Last words - My sister Yoka" (1998). Tickets are L�3000.