A Camera without
Johan van der Keuken

Kees Bakker

I cannot see the face of the earth.
I’m looking over the shoulder of the earth into the light.
And the light, that’s me… amongst others.

(Johan van der Keuken in Filmmaker’s Holiday)

In November 2000 Johan van der Keuken received the Bert Haanstra Oeuvre Award at the International Documentary Film Festival. “Just in time,” he must have thought—like he states at the beginning of his last film The Long Holiday (2000) about the recognition he received in Paris. Touched by this form of recognition, and conscious of the fact that oeuvre awards are normally received towards the end of an artist’s life, he closed his speech with the ironic, but also serious words, “I feel like I’m ninety.” Ironic, because he was only sixty-two. Serious, because he was at the end of his life: Sunday, January 7, 2001, Johan van der Keuken died of prostate cancer in Amsterdam.

If we consider van der Keuken to be the most important representative of the third generation of Dutch documentary filmmakers, then this moment during the festival in November brings together, in an odd way, three emblematic figures of three different generations Dutch documentary history: van der Keuken representing the third generation, receiving the award which bears the name of the most important representative of the second generation, Bert Haanstra, during a festival which has an award named after the pioneer of documentary and leading figure of the first generation, Joris Ivens. And it is without doubt that van der Keuken was influenced by both these predecessors: the political, ideological engagement and global reach of Joris Ivens, and the humour, observing eye and calvinist approach of Bert Haanstra. Aesthetically he may be closer to Ivens than to Haanstra, but it must be said that van der Keuken developed through the years his own distinctive aesthetics.

Johan van der Keuken was born in Amsterdam on April 4, 1938. His grandfather taught him the first elements of photography when he was twelve, and in 1955 he published his first photo book, We Are 17. This book was a series of portraits of his friends, a group of ‘cultural rebels’, and although van der Keuken himself thought it to be an innocent collection of photos, it was received by the critics as a youth manifesto against a conservative post-war climate.1 Its success led him to the members of the ‘Fifties’ movement, and among them Bert Schierbeek, Lucebert, and Remco Campert who collaborated with him on several occasions.

One year later van der Keuken received a grant to study film at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris. He continued with his photography, but got more and more involved into filmmaking, and made his first film with James Blue and Derry Hall in 1960, Paris à l’aube. He continued his experiments with film, and made a few portraits of artists in 1962. His film work became more and more important, and with films like Beppie (1965), Herman Slobbe, Blind Child 2 (both 1966), and Big Ben Webster (1967) he also received recognition from critics and other filmmakers. But this recognition was never a constant factor. Van der Keuken very much strived for it, but felt misunderstood many times, starting with the film The Spirit of the Time (1968). This film was also van der Keuken’s first explicitly political film, and was made in the period in which he developed his distinctive style of filmmaking: political but aesthetic, observant but engaged, personal, and reflexive. Highly composed sequences alternate with very “documentary” images, and in his editing the associational logic often prevails the argumentative logic. Very artificial films like Velocity: 40-70 and Beauty (both 1970) were followed by more politically engaged films like The White Castle (1973) and The Palestinians (1975). His style can be illustrated by the short film The Reading Lesson (1973). In ten minutes we follow a traditional reading lesson, with a class of children naming images. The film starts off with words that correspond to the images, but more and more the images are substituted by other images. The words do not correspond anymore with the images, but through association a new pattern develops in the film. Innocent words like “sheep,” “fire,” and “sister” are now combined with images of riots, a speech of Salvador Allende, Pinochet’s coup d’etat. New combinations generate new meanings, a strategy van der Keuken continues to use, and elaborates in his later films.

Still, van der Keuken didn’t receive the recognition for his work to which he felt himself entitled. This changed with his most Dutch film, The Flat Jungle (1978), and the “discovery” of his work by the critics Serge Daney and Jean Paul Fargier of the French Cahiers du cinéma in that same year. This started more or less the international career of Johan van der Keuken, although the ambivalence remained: The Way South (1980) was generally well received, but A Storm of Images (1981) on the other hand raised quite some polemics.

1985 can be seen as a turning point. Van der Keuken became seriously ill, and doctors diagnosed intestinal cancer. After his recovery he felt less the urge to “explain the world”, and resigned himself more to the idea that opposites (social, political, but also aesthetic) can coexist. The ideological valuation, so present in his earlier films, fell into the background. The Eye Above the Well (1988) is about beauty, tradition, knowledge, control. “But to show that this tradition is not part of a perfect world, I included a sequence in which everything falls into chaos; you see crumbled steps and crippled people (…) I found a way of editing to show both. That was new to me. It released me from the guilty look.”2 It is also from this period that he receives more and more awards, and that he receives more and more the recognition for which he strived.

Although his approach changed slightly, his style remained very recognizable, as we can see in subsequent films like Face Value (1991), Brass Unbound (1993) and Amsterdam Global Village (1996). All of these films present the interrelations, parallels and coexisting conflicts between different cultures in the world. The ideological valuation is left to the spectator, but the associative style and well-composed structures of his films remain. The circular form of the Amsterdam canals make the structure of Amsterdam Global Village, in which we follow a young Moroccan moped courier of photographic material (a bearer of images!), encountering a Chechnian businessman, a Bolivian cleaner and others. Like the moped courier circling along the canals of Amsterdam, we circle around the world with the people we meet during the film; Amsterdam becomes the city that unites different cultures of the world: the global village.

Sometimes the coexistent conflicts become poignant, as in Sarajevo Film Festival Film (1993) in which van der Keuken follows a girl who is attending the Sarajevo film festival during the war. In one of the sequences she is gardening when we hear shots being fired. She, her sister and van der Keuken drop down, waiting for the shooting to end, then she says: “I’m sorry, I thought it would not be dangerous,” followed by a timid smile. We feel the contradiction, but are surprised that it comes so naturally. This is how van der Keuken makes his spectators reflect on paradoxical situations.

In 1998 van der Keuken was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His last film, The Long Holiday, is a journey, driven by his illness, in which life and death are the points of reflection to which all elements in the film are related. With his wife, Nosh van der Lely, he traveled and filmed as he had done in many of his other films. He traveled “with image and sound, to different life situations, cold and warm, empty and full, with people everywhere, living in difficult circumstances, with the help of beautiful stories as a comfort in the face of nothing.” Facing nothingness himself, this film could be seen as van der Keuken’s last will and testament. But while the concepts of life and death play the leading roles in this film, it would be saying too much to consider this film his will and testament. We would be better off following his own words and considering this film as a chronicle of a view, one that is both a world-view and a filmmaker’s and photographer’s optical point of view. And in this way it matches many of his other works.

For example, several parallels can be drawn between The Long Holiday and the other “holiday” film: Filmmaker’s Holiday (1974). Both reflect every now and again on the topics of life and death. In Filmmaker’s Holiday van der Keuken quotes André Bazin stating that film is the only medium that can show the passage from life to death. “I filmed that passage several times, but nothing could be learned from it: nothing happened. It is more difficult to show the passage from death to life, because you have to make that passage—otherwise nothing happens.” This fragment underlines van der Keuken’s attitude, not so much towards life and death, but more towards filmmaking, and the active, perceptive, and subjective role of the filmmaker in it. Active, because he is the one who is composing, selecting and bringing the images together. Perceptive, in order to grasp the things that happen in the world, and to frame them, not only as film-image, but also to frame them in his world-view. Subjective, because he is conscious of the personal aspect of this framing, and often wants to stress the subjectivity of his position in relation to the events before his camera. In this perspective we can relate several burdened statements in his films with each other: in The Long Holiday during the sequence in Rio de Janeiro, where van der Keuken tries to film in the midst of the dancing, but fails to create images because of the lack of light. He himself is conscious of the loaded oppositions he makes between the poor people in the favelas and the rich people hanging above them on parachutes; between himself, “dead” in the dancing because there was no light with which to film, and the poor people from the favelas seeming to come alive in the dancing. At the end of Filmmaker’s Holiday he says “And the light, that’s me,” but follows this immediately with “amongst others” to relativize and to free it from possible religious interpretations. It is to stress the fact that he as filmmaker makes himself present in his films—it is he who controls the light, and thus the images. In the same way, “I am a god” in Face Value is directly followed by the relativizing but revealing “just like everybody is.” Revealing because once again van der Keuken makes it explicit that the world he is showing in his films is his world, the world as he sees it, as he makes it. That is also why it is so important in The Long Holiday (and in many other films) that we see parts of his body, or hear his presence, as to anchor not only the optical point of view, but also the mental and ideological point of view. They posit the filmmaker as source of the images he makes, as well as filter of the ideas he is conveying. In Face Value he states: “I cannot see myself without glasses. Without glasses I cannot see myself. I can see other people. Looking at other people is longing for the unattainable. I cannot see other people (...) The camera looks behind the eye, but the thoughts are not being seen. Van der Keuken seems to contradict himself (“I can see other people” vs. “cannot see other people”), but here lies the essence of how he sees himself as a filmmaker. He can see things (faces), but to fully understand the thoughts behind the eyes remains an unattainable goal. In a way, we see here the omnipresent problematics of Documentary: the camera’s capacities to record reality seem to be contradicted by the sheer impossibility of giving an unequivocal interpretation of what has been recorded. Observing is not the same as understanding. In his earlier films van der Keuken tried to explain the world; in his later films this has changed into an attempt to understand the world, and to understand himself as part of that world. Paraphrasing himself a few moments later in Face Value, van der Keuken stresses that “Without the lens I cannot see myself. I cannot see myself without the lens. Tomorrow I will be born. I will make music with a lens, and I will not see myself.” Again he draws the parallel between seeing, optical elements, and life (being born). Again van der Keuken makes clear that he lives for making world in his films, trying to grasp the world around him, in his way.

After The Long Holiday van der Keuken started a new film project, entitled Unfinished Present. It will remain unfinished, but the present is always now. In Filmmaker’s Holiday van der Keuken opposes photography to film: “A photograph is a souvenir, a memory. Film is always now.” The world may be happy that he left 51 films that will always remain present.

The Long Holiday can be considered as a “chronicle of a death foretold.” In this film, van der Keuken tells us that he has learned from his doctor that the prostate cancer has reappeared, and that he may have only a few years to live. This foretold death, however, is postponed during the film thanks to an alternative therapy that van der Keuken hears about during his travels for the film he is making. The film ends with the optimistic but false hope that he may even reach ninety. Both the first as well as the last shots of this film, in their symbolism, appear to have been much closer to reality than van der Keuken made himself and the spectator believe: the film opens with porcelain cups, one wobbling in the other. The rhythmic movement and sounds become slower and slower, until all movement stops and we see the closeup of the inside of the cup. Time stops, the image becomes empty. The last sequence of the film shows the objects and movements of and on a Dutch river. The image fades more and more out of focus: the river, as a symbol of both life (the flow of time, the lifebringer) and death (like the Styx in Greek mythology), also turns into an empty image. In another sequence of the film van der Keuken states: “I must continue to film. When I can not make an image, I’m dead.” Now Johan van der Keuken has left his camera. He cannot make images anymore.


1. Interview for Amsterdam television channel AT5, 1999.

2. Interview with Max Arian, De Groene Amsterdammer, February 2, 2000.

Kees Bakker

Film researcher. Worked at the European Foundation Joris Ivens since its creation in 1994 until 2001. Has been teaching in the domains of film theory and documentary and published several articles on these topics. Editor of Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context and co-programmer of Doc’s Kingdom, the international seminar on documentary film. He is now working as Research Assistant at the European Audiovisual Observatory in Strasbourg, France, and working on his Ph.D dissertation: “Representation and Interpretation of Reality—Towards a Hermeneutics of Documentary Film and Television.”