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To make his previous documentary, The Life of JeanMarie, Peter van Houten spent several years high in the Pyrenees, following a Dutch pastor who looked after 25 rural parishes in the area, writes Geoffrey Macnab.

Now, the director has returned to the same mountain community to make Miel-Emile, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and worldpremiering in IFFR Signatures. This is the beautiful, very remote place where, many years ago, just after the Second World War, Dutch artist Pierre Raaijmakers (pastor Jean-Marie's father) took his family, promising them paradise on earth.

As the new documentary reveals, Raaijmakers' children had an often very difficult time in their mountain home. Raaijmakers may have been a visionary painter/ sculptor but he was also a dictatorial figure who expected absolute obedience from his wife and kids. Emile (nicknamed Miel), the subject of the new film, is now an old man. He is the son who probably suffered the most.

"I've been coming there every year for 25 years. It's an amazing family, I know all the sisters and brothers. There are 12 of them," Van Houten says of the Raaijmakers clan. (Director Van Houten's links with them stretch back to his childhood in Etten Leur, where Pierre was brought up). What prompted the director to make a second film was Emile's revelation that he had kept many secret, beautifully written letters by his mother. These give a chilling insight into her life with Raaijmakers.

This was a strict Catholic family. Raaijmakers treated his wife as if she was a chattel. She had no rights of her own and had to accede to all his wishes. The documentary tells Emile's story but also offers a very frank account of his parents' marriage.

The artist was a truly contradictory figure, tyrannical in his domestic life (Emile likens him to a Soviet era dictator) but very passionate about aesthetics and culture. "I know there is another half of the father who really wants to improve himself; wants to improve the world and make it a better place for all of us."

Even as he grew old and frail, Raaijmakers remained the same domineering figure, still trying to control the lives of his children. Emile's feelings toward him are ambivalent. For all the pain his father caused him and the resentment he clearly feels, Emile appreciates the way Raaijmakers taught him to understand the natural world. "In their education, the father opened his children's eyes to look at the beautiful side of life."

The director acknowledges that some of the brothers and sisters were startled and upset by The Life of Jean-Marie. The film dealt with aspects of the pastor's adulterous romantic life which everybody in the community already knew about - but which still seemed startling when dealt with so openly on screen. Van Houten is making sure that the family aren't given any surprises by Miel-Emile and has insisted that Emile shares details of the secret letters from his mother with the family.

Van Houten shot many hours of very intimate material. He was using a small camera and tried to make sure he was as unobtrusive as possible. He filmed without a script and says that this was a film he "discovered in the editing" (which took two years).

Ask him whether he regards the mountain top home of the Raaijmakers family as a heaven or a hell and he pauses as if it is a question he is still deliberating over. "There are a lot of different feelings," he reflects. "We really liked to go there. We embraced the family and they embraced us. We talked a lot with them and had a lot of fun. On the other hand, there was some kind of poison in the family...."

SEE NL Magazine #34 November 2019 / Sundance, IFFR, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.


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