Representation in Documentary-art
Date: July 2014
Through the lens the camera metaphorically mirrors the self of the filmmaker. (Sherman, 1998, p.1)
Being born and raised on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao and having lived in the Netherlands for almost ten years now, I observed several troubling matters in the media representations concerning the Dutch Caribbean and diaspora communities. I am confronted with the lack of representations, stereotyping as well as the scarcity of self-representation by the community itself. During my upbringing on Curaçao and Aruba it was mostly foreign commercial media representations from the U.S., Europe & Latin America that were presented through television and other media channels. This still being the case today, it developed my urgency, motivation and desire to engage with film as a medium to communicate Dutch Caribbean local narratives and experiences. It was the audio-visual attractiveness that I preferred over literature, the entertainment nature that had potentiality to reach a vast audience of all ages alongside the possibility to tell one’s own story that made me want to engage with the cinematic experience.
My particular preference for the documentary genre developed because of the genre’s ability to document behaviours of people and societies. This could possibly lead to identification with images seen on screen, which in turn could stimulate reflection and bring about a deeper understanding of one’s community. This understanding prior to my film education, current artistic research and personal double-consciousness, being Caribbean and Dutch, developed into a different awareness. With time I lost the believe in the objective capabilities that I used to assign to documentary. As Godard states “no film can actually show us reality. Films make a statement, and a statement is the filmmaker’s” (Sherman, 1998, p.26).
As I follow this awareness, I am also seeking to gain other insights regarding questions of appropriation, general truth versus the filmmaker’s truth, responsibility for producing counter narratives and questions of own aesthetics. These findings and my negotiation of objectives to improve my work, made me look closer at the history and structure of the medium. I hereby also considered both cinema as well as contemporary art. These discoveries furthermore influenced the direction of my work and renewed my understanding of both the history and the medium of the film. Moreover, I now place a greater importance on my own context, space and experience since it inevitably will influence and become visible in my work, as quoted above “through the lens the camera metaphorically mirrors the self of the filmmaker” (Sherman, 1998, p.1).
What is my position as a Dutch Caribbean filmmaker? Can my subjectivity be an act of self-representation of the local/ diaspora Dutch Caribbean community? What are the implications when presenting or trying to present a counter narrative to the current dominant narrative? Who is allowed to appropriate whose experience/ reality? What can art/ film, in particular documentary do within the post-colonial framework? The following pages are a personal journey of exploration to come to terms with these questions as a Dutch Caribbean filmmaker. I will further develop these questions, alongside several topics that have been at the core of my research at MAR. These topics include: the cinematic and film documentary genre, context, medium, filmmaker position, perspective, representation, and the question of audience involvement.
Cinema & Trauma Experience
Some contemporary productions like De Slavernij, 2013 [TV series], Hoe duur was de suiker, 2013 [film], Caribisch Nederland, 2011/2012/2013 [TV documentary], Alleen maar nette mensen, 2012 [film], which were made by European Dutch producers have caused controversy because they were considered misrepresentations by myself and other audiences familiar with the Dutch Caribbean. For example, the film Alleen maar nette mensen, 2012 [film] initiated informal discussions by several women and other residents of the Bijlmer area in Amsterdam Southeast where the film was shot. Critics of the film indicated that the film was offensive and reinforced perverse stereotypical imagery, for example with the portrayal of a Surinamese woman of African descent as sexual object while a middle-class white family is presented as decent and normal.
An article from Van Maele in the newspaper Trouw (Van Maele, 2012) on the film Alleen maar nette mensen, 2012 [film] provides a analysis of the ways in which the film was perceived in the Netherlands, Curaçao and Suriname. It is observed in this article that usually the ambivalence and disapproval happens in the Netherlands and not so much on the Dutch Caribbean. Hence, the ways in which interpretations and representations are being perceived in this case by the Dutch Caribbean or diaspora is different in the Netherlands than on the Dutch Caribbean. The post-colonial writer and theorist Franz Fanon’s work provided me with an explanation on how and why perceptions could differ in the post-colonial Caribbean-metropole context. Being a black man living in post-war France he describes in detail how his self-awareness changed when moving to the metropole. He writes:
I cannot go to a film without seeing myself. I wait for me. In the interval, just before the film starts, I wait for me. The people in the theatre are watching me, examining me, waiting for me. A Negro groom is going to appear. My heart makes my head swim. (Fanon, 1967, p.104)
“My heart makes my head swim” refers to a paranoid disruption because as a spectator his identity was lost on and off-screen. According to him a Caribbean man does not by default identify himself as a “negro”. He explains the reason for the trauma and conflict, as resulting from a certain lack of self-awareness and the ways in which a Caribbean man forms his identity. This formation occurs in relation to his community and culture and it is only when he takes a step outside of his surroundings that he gains a sense of consciousness, critical self-assessment and hyper awareness of the ways in which others perceive him, as the following quotes indicate.
Because such a person views the world around him as his community where he belongs and “with help of books, newspapers, schools and their texts, advertisements, films, radio—work their way into one’s mind” (Fanon, 1967, p.152)
As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others.’ Only when he steps outside “his own” community can “the black man” begin to look at himself critically. (p. Fanon, 1967, p. ix)
For a long time the Caribbean has been a nice location for foreign productions and producers to come and use the landscape to present an image of the Caribbean, which is not per se showing the actual reality of the people represented (Cham, 1995).
The Caribbean had a long acquaintance with cinema, but only as a resource for foreign productions, which exploited the natural/ physical endowments of the tropical islands and invented other endowments to manufacture an image of the Caribbean radically at odds with the reality of the people of the Caribbean. (Cham, 1995, p. 242)
Moreover, the current position of the Caribbean, whereby an imported film culture reigns can be traced back to historical relations as suggested by Cham in the following quote:
The Caribbean is still in this position subjected to a dominant regime of foreign film culture, itself a derivative of the history of plantation slavery and western imperial and colonial exploitation and of the resultant socio-political, economic and cultural relations of dependency of the Caribbean on the West. (Cham, 1995, p. 242)
Comparable to the rest of the Caribbean, the Dutch Caribbean also has a status of being a “receiver” of foreign media productions. Having the US, Latin America and the Netherlands as main TV and film producers making their productions accessible through satellite TV, cinema channels and the local TV stations. This arrangement provides “First world” communication infrastructures, automatically positioning them as “transmitters”. Historically, this monopolistic power of global media and cinema circulation turned cinema into an ideal tool, which dominant nations used to present imperial driven stories facilitating an audience experience of “national and imperial belonging” (Shohat & Stam 1994). Due to this empire driven agenda, these power relations and cinematic constructions have allowed for the creation of a colonial voyeuristic gaze and instruments to otherize other cultures, perpetuate stereotypes and present normalized ideas.
Fanon describes the imbalance of power relations with regard to cinematic productions as “collective catharsis” (Fanon, 2008). This refers to the fact that every society develops channels to voice collective aggression. Memmi offers another description and names the unbalanced power relationship the “mark of the plural” (Memmi, 1968 cited in Shohat & Stam, 1994, p 183). This refers to a system of perpetuation and generalization of a negative projection that ultimately forms essential representations of the particular group.
In the context of the Dutch Caribbean and the Netherlands that share a colonial history, the first media representations on the Former Dutch Antilles were being made and produced by European Dutch . It can be argued that the former and current representations are predominantly affiliated with negative stereotypical portrayals when it comes to the Dutch Caribbean politics, lifestyle, community and history. Or on the contrary, it is also sometimes portrayed as a sun, sea, and sand exotic paradise (Sheller, 2004). An example of this limited portrayal would be the Bon Bini beach [Tv series] produced by Endemol, 2002–2003, where the island landscape, culture, social character, economy and diversity is being reduced to a “reality” that practically only takes place at one beach. While I recognize the fictive nature of the plot and story telling of Bon bini beach, being the few or even only production of it’s kind can become or be seen as a fixed representation of the island.
According to Mike Willemse (Editor in Chief of “het Antilliaans Dagblad”, one of the two Dutch written newspapers on the island of Curaçao) the reason for these forms of negative and recurring representations has to do with the way the reporting is being done, which is based on archive reporting (Sijtsma, 2012). Meaning that European Dutch journalists, who need to know what is happening overseas, base their stories on old archive materials stored in national and other archives that can date back to colonial times. So if today’s representation and reporting is influenced by national archive material, then what type of material are we talking about and what can this material tell us?
An example of archive material presented, are the Dutch Polygoon-Profilti cinema newsreels that quite possibly became a base for archive reporting as mentioned above. The Dutch Polygoon-Profilti is a cinema company that was based in the Netherlands between 1919 and 1987. They started filming and making news reports on the Dutch Antilles during the 40’s leading to the period of 1954 when the new constitution was signed.
As producers of cinematic representations on the Dutch Caribbean for the Netherlands the projections were being made by European Dutch for a Dutch audience serving a Dutch point of view. Therefore, contributing to the formation of a collective opinion and gaze towards the formerly colonized Dutch Antilles, its landscapes and community. This can imply that there is also a common understanding of stereotypes and judgments that are projected by and for a Dutch perspective. It can then be said that cinema in the Dutch context is also used to form nationhood and national identity by presenting stories within a particular colonial context, from the colonizer’s perspective. This perspective is showing us landscapes, events and cultures that are abnormal and non typical to first world countries.
Next to forming a community’s national identity the cinematic form positions the audience to look at the screen whereby this act of looking turns cinema into “a apparatus of gaze” (Shohat & Stam, 1994). This act of looking gives the audience the illusion of a reality beyond what we can perceive as humans and therefore offering the audience a visual power. This effect of the visual power is described elaborately in the following quote:
The ‘spacially-mobilized visuality’ of the I/eye of empire spiraled outward around the globe creating a visceral, kinetic sense of imperial travel and conquest, transforming European spectators into armchair conquistadors, affirming their sense of power while turning the colonies into spectacle for the metropole’s voyeuristic gaze. (Shohat & Stam, 1994, p.104)
The power of cinema not only manifest itself through the visual but also through audio, sound, music and language, which Michel Chion coins as “point of hearing” (Choin cited in Shohat & Stam, 1994, p. 209). Examples of how auditive power has been utilized are for instance when unfamiliar rhythmic drumbeats and loud foreign music (to Europe) is being used to indicate danger. Also the exclusiveness and persistence of the English, Spanish, Dutch languages as dominant mode of communication can reinforce the power identification.
Before the first video shop opened in Curaçao around the 80’s, it was the cinema theatres; West End and Cinelandia that offered Italian spaghetti-westerns, Willem Parel, 1955 [film], and films like Return to paradise, 1953 [film] and “Spring parade”,1940 [film]. In non-Dutch Caribbean islands, which also have colonial affiliations the cinema going activity was reserved for a particular socio-economic group:
For the urban elite of the colonized lands, the pleasures of cinema–going became associated with the sense of a community on the margins of its particular European empire (especially since the first movie theatres in these countries were associated with Europeans and the Europeanized local bourgeoisies). (Shohat & Stam, 1994, p.102)
Similarly, for the middle class community on Curaçao and presumably the Dutch Caribbean these theatre venues had a big influence and entertainment value, but unavoidably this type of programming enhanced assimilation processes for the local spectators to identify themselves as part of the Dutch empire. The current situation is that Hollywood and Europe are still the dominant film distributors and the Netherlands still produces cinema and TV representations transmitted in the Dutch Caribbean and the Netherlands. Even though there have been some local productions this minor additional form of self- representation by local filmmakers like Felix de Rooy is actually an indication that unequal terms with regard to production and distribution of cinematic representations still apply.
Mbye Cham mentions three distinctive categories of different types of film productions in the Caribbean context; these different channels of input convey different filmmakers, agendas and angles of visual representation. These categories include: 1. Visual representation by Caribbean makers in the Caribbean 2. Visual representation about the Caribbean, but made and produced outside the Caribbean; 3. Visual representation about the Caribbean by non-Caribbean people (p. 246, Cham, 1995, p.246). Being aware that the categorization reference above is primarily based on geographic location and nationality one could also replace or consider other classification groups such as race, class, religion and gender to address similar issues when it comes to appropriation, stereotypes and representation.
In the Dutch Caribbean context the first two categories do apply, but relatively less than visual representation about the Caribbean by non-Caribbean people, which in this case refers specifically to non-Caribbean as European Dutch producers. Nevertheless, visual representations by Dutch Caribbean makers has existed in the past, especially in the 1980’s, for example, Ava & Gabriel 1986 [film], and Almacita di Desolato, 1986 [film], Marival, 1990 [Documentary], by Felix de Rooy. It can be observed that a gap followed, but in recent years another generation and wave of filmmakers and producers, myself included, started bringing local and foreign representation through film and documentary.
There are certain observations that can be made with regard to the films that have been produced in the last ten years . For starters, the dis-balance of European Dutch producers versus local makers is still valid since almost more than half of the films are made by non-Dutch Caribbean makers. Further characteristics of the ‘recent’ examples can fall under: following conventional story-telling techniques, non-critical one-sided perspective, suggesting more of an objective “truth” presentation, dominant and recurring traditional narrative: slavery, ‘real’ stories (of the working class, marginalized, underprivileged people) presenting economic, social and political relations between European Dutch and Dutch Caribbean community. What is also noticeable is the fact that most productions seems to predominantly be fixed documentary genre instead of the fiction.
Film in Postcolonial Time
Subjects are those who alone “have the right to define their own reality, establish their own identity, name their history” (hooks 1989, cited in Kilomba 2010, p.12) As objects however, our reality is defined by others. Our identities created by others, and our “history named only in ways that define (our) relationship to those who are subjects” (hooks 1989, cited in Kilomba 2010, p.12). This passage from objecthood to subjecthood is what marks writing as a political act. It is furthermore an act of decolonization in that one is opposing colonial positions by becoming the valid and legitimate writer, and reinventing oneself by naming a reality that was either misnamed or not named at all. (Kilomba, 2010, p.12)
The Third Cinema films and manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema” from the 60/70’s show us the motivation and urgency of opposing oppression: “The idea that one has to write, almost as a virtual moral obligation, embodies the belief that history can “be interrupted, appropriated, and transformed through artistic and literary practice” (hooks 1990, cited in Kilomba 2010, p.12). I consider Third Cinema examples like Grupo Cine Liberaciónan, a way of visual writing presenting an aesthetic and political undertaking whereby its key concepts have inspired and empowered filmmakers throughout the regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Third Cinema is informed by the desire and need to bring one’s own narrative, or even demand the right to speak about the Dutch Caribbean as a Dutch Caribbean filmmaker. In essence, Third Cinema attempts to present an alternative, counter story to the dominant narratives and traditional techniques in representation. It brings alternative narratives, positive images and a presumed different reality, which can also be termed as “progressive realism to unmask and combat hegemonic representations, countering the objectifying discourses of patriarchy and colonialism with a vision of themselves and their “reality” “from within” (Shohath & Stam,1994, p. 180). However, the movement, even if understandable in its political objective, is not always unproblematic and also brings certain issues. For example, this model still operates within a system that imposes and reinforces the idea of essentialism, which does not allow for transformational approaches and open spaces of multiple perspectives.
Taking these problematic aspects of Third Cinema into account, current filmmakers are not only contesting grand narratives of Western cinema, but also Third Cinema ideology is one that needs to be revisited and deconstructed. According to J. Lackey this deconstructive behaviour has to do with another evolution in cinema that has taken place and coins this a “diasporic turn”, which forms present film stories and aesthetics.
Postcolonial theorists mobilize the concept of the diaspora as an existential condition or identity through which resistance to colonial representations is made possible. The term diaspora connotes the physical crossing of borders as well as the contestation of the “boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, of belonging and otherness, of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that undergird colonial and anti-colonial rhetoric. (Lackey, 2007, p. 10)
Leading post-colonial thinkers as Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy talk about the ‘diasporic identity’. This refers to a unique and complex identity formation, which counters an essentialized Western understanding of identity and challenges the notion of an essential black subject. The power of this alternative understanding of identity resides in the potential to contest the idea of the binary connection between the colonizer and the colonized. It transforms nationalistic discourse and eliminates discourses surrounding fixed national identities. Additionally, it acknowledges the uniqueness and possible hybrid outcomes as a result of diaspora filmmakers negotiating and successfully manoeuvring the space of contradictory and intricate dialogues associated with the dominant cinemas of the West.
In her thesis Lackey brings attention to a difference, disconnect, and separation between Third World Cinema and contemporary African diasporic filmmaking (Lackey, 2007). Even though both Third Cinema and African diaspora filmmaking have commonalities because of their reflection of postcolonial and diasporic reality they are not the same. The diaspora filmmaking is different than Third Cinema not only because diasporic filmmakers or filmmaking contest the grand narratives of the so-called West, but also deconstruct the accounts from the Third Cinema film ideologies. Lackey refers to three elements on which these contemporary film frameworks differ.
Diaspora filmmaking goes beyond nation specific thought and is not based on the ideology of nationalism. The diaspora in itself talks about both inside and outside a nation, whereas with Third Cinema authors give the nation more importance than individual subjectivity. Boundaries, influences and relationships are not fixed and defined in diaspora filmmaking since marginal groups can also be present in the so-called First world and do not necessarily have to be located in the Third world. For example, there is a permanent trace and impact of foreign cinema, which influences diaspora directors in such an exceptional manner that produces hybrid outcomes including all kinds of filmmaking elements from both First and Third Cinema. Diasporic filmmaking does not try to present one sole ideology of a particular situation, but attempts to create the possibility for multiple realities to co-exist and the space for audiences to actively develop their own interpretation instead of having to passively receive a predetermined ‘truth’. Whereas in Third Cinema a particular singular perspective is brought across, whereby the medium assumes to bring across the reality as it is.
The black British filmmakers of the 1980s like The Sankofa film and video collective and the Black Audio Film collective are examples of black British film productions that can fall under the diaspora cinema Lackey is referring to. Their films allowed for the possibility of multiple political voices to emerge and persuaded a decolonial political ideology within their cinematic work. Deviating from a militant and realistic approach they worked with imagination and fantasy as a way to reflect and address identity and representation issues.
Next to Lackey’s mention of the “diasporic turn” and having some examples as reference, I also came to find another change that H. Steyerl coins the “documentary turn”. Since the 1990’s documentary practices have crossed into the realm of what was is traditionally called fine art or simply art, as seen at exhibitions like Documenta x and xi. Nevertheless, putting documentary in the context of art is not without controversy, but does allow for different perceptions to co-exist, breaking boundaries, and creates an open space for a “polyvocal field of meaning” (Demos, 2005).
Two good examples of this change are Steve McQueen, a diaspora filmmaker, and Wendelien van Oldenborgh, a Western Dutch artist. It is thereby important to understand their position as located within the art context. In McQueen’s work the empahsis thereby lies on how he deals with the conditions of representation, for instance in Western Deep, 2002 [film] . The elevator scene at the beginning of this film brings a dark introduction, refusing to make an “acceptable” illuminated visual representation. We are experiencing the presence of the non-appearance or the shortage of an illuminated presence giving a sense of resisting the conventional representation. At the same time, it unravels the limitations of the camera when documenting “reality” in low light conditions. In his work, McQueen opposes documentary realism as such and allows continuous new representations and interpretations of the postcolonial, which brings the spectator to a crossroad of an uncertain, undefined, and ambiguous place. In essence, Western Deep “refuses the pretense of transparency by the withdrawal of visuality which expresses the limits of capturing a reality that exceeds it” (Demos, 2005).
In Catch,1997 we see McQueen and his sister throwing a camera back and forth while recording. Here the video as a medium also presents the possibility of capturing while at the same time showing the shortcoming in doing so. The unclear, unfocused images of the camera in fast movement show us the incapability to capture the throw that is being performed. While looking at the undefined images and the dislocated movements, a physical experience is presented, exceeding the conventional cinema obedient viewing experience for the audience. In both works the limits and play between capability and simultaneous incapability of the medium’s representation on reality is being contested in ways that allows new interpretation and takes the audience out of a passive spectator state. The “missing”, “complete ir-representable” parts of these two works open possibilities for several meanings (Demos, 2005).
Another example is Wendelien van Oldenborgh work that usually brings many voices together, which is then translated into a theatrical film, video installation, performance, lecture or personal reading. Van Oldenborgh is one of the few Dutch artists who addresses the question of the hidden, not openly discussed issues about cultural and political consciousness. Apart from that she also examines and challenges themes that usually fall under rhetorical repetition, for example the Dutch colonial past history. Instead of taking or presenting one position in her work, she creates the conditions where others are invited to bring into dialogue the relationships between different historical, social and political perspectives. The use of polyphony as an alternative approach is definitely a characteristic. Polyphony, having an origin in music and later been translated into language and narratives forms gives the ability for multiple conflicting voices to cross each other. This according to Bakhtin offers a hybrid language and statements for a multitude of individual voices (Bangma, 2008).
Her work Maurits Script, 2006 [film installation] is divided in two stages one being a public live event where an audience can be present and the second part a film installation. In this work another voice is created apart from the already existing historical document of the short period in which the Netherlands, under governor Johan Maurits of Nassau, had a colony in Brazil. Here she presents different perspectives and ideologies in relation to each other brought by various invited speakers of different backgrounds performing several roles as listeners, readers and audience. Even though the work deals with the documented history it is not about performing or presenting a correction of the “one-sided” “reality”. With the polyphonic methodology she searches for universal conceptions we have of reality and existing universal illusions of making things transparent without problematizing issues or events more.
As a Dutch European artist her work advocates examining relationships and bringing different/ contrasting positions within conflicting realities. In part this is a response to the Netherlands and other European countries’ attempts to defend themselves by determining “their/our” historical canon. In her being a Dutch European artist it takes me back to the question of appropriation and representation and that shows that indeed it should not be a question of who has the right to speak, but rather more realistically to consider ways of “How might we interweave our voices, whether in chorus, in antiphony, in call and response, or in polyphony?” (Shohat & Stam, 1994, p.346). Surely, it brings some fearful thoughts when thinking of others, who do not belong to the same socio-political and/ or geographic background speaking for you. However, by being open to whomever feels compelled to engage in the collective responsibility it can be rewarding, help cultivate intercommunal coalitions and distributes the burden of representation despite its challenges:
Coalitions are not conflict free spaces, of course, alliances are often uneasy; dialog can be painful and polyphony can become cacophony. But cultural polyphony would orchestrate a multifaceted polylog among all those interested in restructuring power in more egalitarian ways. (Shohat & Stam, 1994, p. 342-344)
In political terms it would imply the cultivation of what Charlotte Bunch has called “one –person coalitions”; that is, a situation in which not only blacks but whites would address issues of racism, where men as well as woman would address issues of gender, where heterosexuals would speak against homophobia (Shohat & Stam, 1994, p.346)
My position, new methodologies, conclusion
In retrospect, considering that my own documentary reproduced conventional forms of documentary I was less conscious that I perhaps returned “dangerously to precritical notions of representations that make problematic assumptions of transparency and neutrality” (Demos, 2005). I now contemplate more my unique position, identity, choices and implications in new works. Being more sensitive and conscious about my “border position” (Min ha cited in Josephs, 2013, p.129) as a Dutch Caribbean filmmaker, made me come to a place of “heightened awareness” like Fanon puts it and strive to experiment rather than just emulate existing formulas. My identification with the diaspora requires an unavoidable negotiation between contradictory spaces and dialogues with the dominant cinema of the West and other conventional, militant cinema representations that put forward essentialized ideologies. Thus, my in-between “border position” can offer a unique perspective that is in constant transformation and can therefore differentiate from what is already there. The Caribbean region being my main research terrain and central to my work also offers layered grounds where multiple relationships are most visible, making it impossible to work in absolute modes of thinking. Expanding my documentary practice in the art context allows me not only to address a story but also to address the conditions of the medium itself.
The complex and layered experience of the Caribbean as a space of “multiple series of relationships” (Glissant, 1999) will be my main source for research and work, which at its core searches and reflects on the (Dutch) postcolonial outcomes and experiences. Glissant mentions the phrase “multiple series of relationships” in the chapter Cross-Cultural Poetics and states that the Caribbean is indefinable, open, and only finds meaning in relation to other things. What is also interesting is the way in which Glissant refers to the Caribbean and its multiple relationships as a “metissage”, where internal as well as external diversity of cultures and societies are valuable and make the Caribbean as distinct and unique as it is, but this additionally erases notions of essence and pure races since “creolization is unpredictable, it cannot solidify, become static, be fixed in essence or absolutes of identity. Thus, identities and differences are always in process (Britton, 1999). A relevant example of how the notion of metissage relates to Caribbean language, culture and in my future works is reflected in the following piece by Glissant:
Its most obvious symbol is in the creole language, whose genius consists in always being open, that is, perhaps, never becoming fixed except according to systems of variables that we have to imagine as much as define. Creolization carries along then into the adventure of multilingualism and into the incredible explosion of cultures. But the explosion of cultures does not mean they are scattered or mutually diluted. It is the violent sign of their consensual, not imposed, sharing (Glissant, 2010, p.34).
The disbalance of the amount of foreign presentation instead of local, Caribbean life experience in cinema became an unavoidable desire and urgency to produce work that include particular Dutch Caribbean experiences and perspectives. The fact that I insist in creating audiovisual work with a focus Dutch Caribbean overlaps with findings of Ramchand established in literature. He indicates that overall, in comparison to writers in general, West Indian writers have a particular additional urge and special way to express themselves about their own community:
West Indian novelists apply themselves with unusual urgency and unanimity to an analysis and interpretation of their society’s ills, including the social and economic deprivation of the majority; the pervasive consciousness of race and colour; the cynicism and uncertainty of the native bourgeoisie in power after independence; the lack of a history to be proud of; and the absence of traditional settled values (Ramchand 1970, cited by Thompson Jr, 2001 p.116).
Putting documentary in the context of art is certainly not without conflict and working in a postcolonial context implicates an “obscure assignment of perspectives” because navigating the aftermath of colonialism entails being part of a space and situation where differences and power structures are neutralized to some extent, whereby the “postcolonial posits no clear domination and calls for no clear opposition” (Shohat & Stam, 1994, p. 39). This structured ambivalence discussed in art can allow continuous new representations and interpretations of the ambivalent “postcolonial” space, which will ultimately make us reflect and come to transnational understandings of matters experienced in the modern world today.
Since I am working with the audiovisual medium, which is to be considered a Western method of bringing across information and/ or entertainment. In finding new methodologies and own aesthetics I would also have to look into other communication structures that are part of the Caribbean culture such as oral storytelling, music, and dance (Glissant, 1999, p.249). Within the search of my artistic methodology, I seek a continuous balance between concepts, visual mediums and a combination of aesthetic forms that are natural and familiar to the Caribbean.
My first attempt was “Hidden Transcripts” at 1646,  where I started to experiment with a live set performance. In wanting to experiment more I became interested to work with the carnival setting and context as a component in my work. Within carnival the capability exists to overthrow the old and conformed order in which a distinct relationships between, body, language and politics manifest. In a one-day solo-exhibition I projected seven screens with old archive material produced by the Dutch Polygoon-Profilti Company showing images filmed on Aruba and Curaçao. The images included visits of the two previous Queens of the Netherlands to the Dutch Caribbean, other images showed fragments during the height of the industrial migration period from the Antilles to the Netherlands and two important political moments on Aruba & Curacao . In the same space I provided the elements such as costumes, masks and music for a Carnival festivity to take place. In addition to the event I invited C. Granger to give a lecture on Calypso: Resistance and Survival in the music of Carnival. The event was recorded with the hope to produce a sequel work or for documentation purposes.
“Hidden Transcripts” (2014) Live performance
In my second work “Doh mix meh up: We always negotiatin” I continued with the Calypso and Carnival elements. I decided that also on a practical level I would revisit my work approach. As an experiment I filmed and collected material during the celebration of Carnival on Aruba. By not filming with a concrete script and allowing myself to conceptually construct the work afterwards, it was my attempt to let go of the conventional film production I was used to. Apart from not having a script but more of an idea, I was working alone with no film crew, text readings together with field research would both inform me step by step. In this practical search for developing new ways of work production things were certainly not easy. At times I experienced moments of full confidence followed by feeling totally insecure and lost in my approach. Surprising to me was how hard it was to let go of the documentary film techniques I had developed. The footage used in Doh mix meh up was from the whole period the only moment I had made a “daring” artistic choice and took a different approach.
“Doh mix meh up: We always negotiatin” (2014)
The work “Doh mix meh up” consists of an audio, visual and spectator element, which are all mutually relevant to the work. These three components communicate several layers of information that incorporate “hidden” revelations and questions. In this work I experiment with the interaction between these three elements, especially the capability/ incapability of representation, presentation and understanding of a postcolonial time and space. Another vital aspect is the ultimate audience perception and interpretations, which are formed depending on the spectators background knowledge and experience. In the work I used Calypso & Roadmarch songs together with the discussions surrounding it as a metaphor for negotiations on Aruban identity and nationalism, which keeps reinventing itself. My observations were that Aruba seemingly has a “nationalism” that “fortunately” is not being shaped (according to conventional ways) because of its condition of constant negotiation. The “we”, referring to; the island Aruba, the community or the individual is incapable of giving an exact definition. This constant negotiation is thus a manifestation of diversity that shows us a fundamental characteristic of the Caribbean. The “we”, “nos”, “Rubiano”, “Rubianonan” , is an ongoing negotiation of the diversity of its people. Apart from the conscious/unconscious search of identity, Their is a collective unconsciousness that recognizes an “under the surface” link beyond divisions of Dutch, Britten and French Caribbean and it manifests itself as seeing Trinidad & Tobago as a prototype to follow. Together with Curaçao, these three islands experienced a hyper industrial period which was brought on by the arrival of oil refineries. The collective unconscious recognizes The hyper industrial period as a new beginning.
Cinema as a construction and subjective viewpoints, in the event of presenting work arises a dialogue between “transmitter” and “receiver”. These parties are both socially positioned and bring to the table their own sentiments, baggage and background on several levels such as gender, social class, sexual orientation etc., that all intersect. As a result, I can merely present one or several of the many perspectives of the diaspora Dutch Caribbean community while always acknowledging that this is only one “truth” of many “truths”.
It has been established that the historic and current dominant narrative regarding the Dutch Caribbean community and diaspora has mainly been associated with superficial images such as sun and sea portrayals or negative and dismissive stereotypes due to constructing representations based on archive reporting. There have been movements such Third Cinema that attempted to bring stark counter narratives opposing dominant narratives. However, the danger that exists in doing so is that these practices subscribe to essentialist notions, which is not my intention and would possibly confine the Caribbean in a singular image and identity. What I aim to is bring forward alternative methods and representations that should co-exist alongside the already existing dominant narratives while being careful not to fall in the mode of a rigid oppositional position that tries to combat prevailing narratives as a solution.
The thought of being from the same social, political, cultural background giving the right and ability to bring a greater truth or absolute representation of the reality of said community emerged due to a recurrent lack of accurate representations. In rethinking this I looked at a Dutch visual artist and diaspora filmmaker with similar interest and subject matters. Van Oldenborgh in Maurits Script creates the circumstances and sets up a work where she invites different voices to interchange different historical, social and political relationships. In this work she uses the concept of polyphony as an alternative approach. In McQueen’s work, particularly Western Deep he chooses a different approach by opposing the traditional documentary mode. He achieves this by refusing “the pretense of transparency by the withdrawal of visuality which expresses the limits of capturing a reality that exceeds it” (Demos, 2005). The play between representing and ability of not being able to represent a postcolonial interpretation leaves the audience in an ambiguous place of uncertainty.
Both examples are balancing their approaches between story, the medium and conditions wherein the work presents its self. Making it more about ones particular understanding or view, questions and search than where one geographically or culturally comes from. At the same time this does not do away with conflict because in the attempt to create a multifaceted polyphony, dialog can also indirectly become cacophony. In the end, it does still offer the possibility of “restructuring power in more egalitarian ways”. (Shohat & Stam, 1994, p. 342-344)
To conclude, at the beginning of this journey I struggled with questions and attempted to find answers by exploring a variety of subject matters relevant to my practice and myself. Questions such as; what is my position as a Dutch Caribbean filmmaker? Can my subjectivity be an act of self-representation of the local/ diaspora Dutch Caribbean community? What are the implications when presenting or trying to present a counter-narrative to the current dominant narrative? Who is allowed to appropriate whose experience/ reality? What can art/ film, in particular documentary do within the post-colonial framework?, were meant to be explored. It is fair to say that in the process these concerns and considerations have been investigated and ripped apart and have led to several basic, understandings and new beliefs. But I also realized in the process that this is only the beginning and that my search for questions and answers will be an ongoing process.
Appendix 1: List of Film, Documentary and other Cinematic/Visual productions from and about the Dutch Caribbean
- German Gruber Jr: E leyenda di Buchi Fil 2008, Sensei Redenshon 2013
- Jermain Lo: Makambia, Tula su Kosecha 2012
- Sharelly Emanuelson: Su Solo y Playanan 2010
- Gianno Silvanie: Curasauwse Makamba 2013
- Rebecca Roos: A Royal Affair 2014
- Laura Bijnsdorp: Back in the day 2014
- Felix de Rooy: Ava & Gabriel 1986, Almacita di desolato 1986, Marival (Documentary) 1990, Ava & Gabriel – Un historia di amor (1990), Desiree (1984)
- Frank en Tita M. Chumaceiro Curafilms tussen 1951 en 1961 Babalú (1952), Music and Dances of Curaçao (1952), Rots en Water (1956) Cura Hits (1961),
- Carl Schultz: Curaçao (1993)
- Jessie van vreeden: bij ons in scharloo 2006 (selfmade films/nps)
- Sander Burgman: Panman Rhythm of the Palms 2008
- Nova TV serie: de Antillen, deel 3: corruptie en criminaliteit op Sint-Maarten en Bonaire 2008 http://www.uitzendinggemist.nl/afleveringen/1333997
- Keith Aumont: Boys of Summer 2010
- Sander Snoep en Sarah Vos: Curaçao 2010
- NTR Documentaire serie: Caribisch Nederland 2010, Caribisch Nederland 3 jaar later 2013
- Erik van Prooije: tros, een vandaag, antilliaanse man op zoek naar vaderrol 2011
- Froukje Smit: Zoutkristallen 2012
- Catrien Ariëns: Tambu: The Rhythm of Curaçao 2012
- NTR Documentaire serie: Onder elkaar Hollandse maatjes 2013
- Francisco Pardo: Abo So 2013 (Aruba’s first musical film)
- Het klokhuis: Canon -Nederlandse Antillen 2013
- Jeroen Leinders: Tula the revolt 2013
- Zembla: stikken in het paradijs | vara, 21 mrt 2013
- Shariff Korve: Mi Kulpa 2013
- Mart Smeets: Mart & de nederlanders in de mlb 2014
- Cindy Kerseborn: Frank Martinus Arion: yu di kòrsou’ 2014
- Experimental films rising from IBB institute and subscription at the rotterdam film festival.
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Sheller M., 2004, Tourism Mobilities: Places to Play, Places in Play, Usa, Canada: Routledge
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Steyerl H., 2005. The politics of truth: Documentarism in the Art field in: Schaschl-Cooper. S & Steinbrügge. B. 2005, The need to document. s.l: s.n.
Thompson D Jr., 2001, The Novel before 1950 , in Arnold, 2001, A History of Literature in the Caribben.