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Geoffrey Macnab talks to emerging Dutch talent

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Geoffrey Macnab talks to the emerging talent who are looking to redefine the look and feel of Dutch and European cinema.

Young Dutch director Mees Peijnenburg sums it up well when he enthuses about the new wave of talent currently emerging from The Netherlands. "I feel there is this energy around with people really trying to tell their own stories," Peijnenburg declares. "People are broadening their horizons and thinking more globally instead of nationally, which I find super interesting."

Peijnenburg is part of the new wave himself. His debut feature Paradise Drifters, supported by the Film Fund, will be released this summer. It's about three homeless young adults who manage to retain their hunger for life despite the considerable odds they face trying to keep themselves alive, all the time trying to build a future in southern Europe. The film, which takes place in Amsterdam, Marseilles, Belgium and Barcelona, is one of a number of intriguing projects from a new generation of Dutch filmmakers. These films come in every conceivable form. There are rites of passage movies, experimental art house dramas and satirical comedies among them.

Young Dutch-based Greek artist Janis Rafa is following up on her first solo exhibition (‘Eaten By NonHumans', held recently at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht) with her debut feature film Kala-a-zar which has more than a hint of David Lynch about it. With virtually no dialogue, this is a brooding, atmospheric drama about a couple living on the outskirts of a city in southern Europe who collect dead animals and abandoned roadkill, bringing them to a pet crematorium. Looking after these animals gives meaning to the couple's lives.

"It is completely cinematic, a fiction film with a beginning and a clear end," Rafa explains. "It is a work obviously made to be exhibited in a cinema context, a festival context and not to be screened in a museum." The main actors are Penelope Tsilika and Dimitris Lalos. Digna Sinke's SNG Film is the producer on the project. The Greek co-producer is Heretic.

How did Rafa assemble the carcasses of the dead animals which feature so prominently in the film? (And no, these aren't dummies or props.) "For me, it was interesting to acknowledge the animals. The best way I could do that was by finding them in the landscape," the artist explains. "They are actual animals that were found dead. Of course, they were not killed for the film. It is like a tribute to these animals, incorporating them in the film." The fact that the Netherlands Film Fund and the Mondrian Fund supported Kala-a-zar points to Rafa's growing reputation in both the cinema world and the art world.

One young writer-director whose profile is fast rising is the Surinamese-Cape Verdean Ashar Medina. He was the screenwriter on Gonzalo Fernandez's Golden Calfnominated short Tom Adelaar, made for Topkapi. His screenplay, about a young black telemarketer who changes his name and accent in order to avoid racism and succeed better in his job, is partially inspired by Medina's own experiences.

By chance, US filmmaker and actor Boots Riley enjoyed a big hit at Sundance with his feature Sorry To Bother You, also about a black call centre worker passing himself off as white. "It was a bizarre coincidence which at first I was scared about because I thought people were going to say you ripped this off," Medina remembers. However, he quickly found out that it was "incredibly universal" for Dutch call centre workers from minority backgrounds to pass themselves off to customers as white.

Medina first met Fernandez when they were students at the Netherlands Film Academy. "He studied directing, I studied screenwriting. We found each other pretty fast," Medina recalls. They shared a love of genre filmmaking of the 70s and 80s. Both had a passion for making entertaining films which also had something provocative to say about contemporary society. "As far as the genre and the drama (is concerned), we worked completely together. Tom Adelaar is about being alienated, about searching for your identity, about family ties and how they can be suffocating and sometimes liberating. These are things that everyone can understand."

Medina (also the writer on TV drama Mocro Mafia) has directorial projects of his own but aims to work with Fernandez again on the new feature project The Island - A Tale of Narcissus. This is a tragicomedy about a hedonistic young black poet who sees himself as a new Arthur Rimbaud and refuses to be bound by social conventions. The first TV film he wrote was Jungle (2017), a drama about two young Syrian refugees who try to survive in a notorious refugee camp in Calais. It was directed by Dutch director Hetty de Kruijf and nominated for two Golden Calves.

Both Medina and Fernandez look set to establish themselves as leading names in Dutch cinema culture over the coming years. Echoing Peijnenburg's remarks about the emergence of a new wave of Dutch writing and directing talent, Medina points out that there is "a lot of talent that is beginning to run and go with these new types of stories that we have in this day and age." A challenge for the young filmmakers is maintaining their own visions even as broadcasters, commissioning editors and funders give them feedback and script notes. "Sometimes, with our system, it can happen that you get too many cooks in the kitchen," Medina warns.

One young writer who clearly doesn't ever compromise to please his backers is Jeroen Scholten van Aschat, the screenwriter of Viktor van der Valk's IFFR hit Nocturne and co-writer of Shady El-Hamus' soon to be released rites of passage debut feature De Libi (aka About That Life), backed by the Film Fund.

Directors who've worked with him talk about Van Aschat's discipline and his understanding of story structure. "He has a strength that I was looking for. He is very analytical. He is a very different writer than I am and that really helps me with my projects," El-Hamus says of his co-writer (with whom he also collaborated on the 2017 short Nightshade).

El-Hamus wrote first drafts of the screenplay which he sent to Van Aschat who in turn reshaped the material before returning it to the director. Towards the end of the process, they spent more and more time "together in a room, talking it through and making notes."

One of the fascinations about De Libi is that this is a film influenced in style by all those Hollywood-made Cooley High and American Graffiti style movies but made with a distinctly European aesthetic, about youngsters on the verge of adulthood, driven by a lust for life. The filmmakers talk about the energy and open-minded quality they want De Libi to have.

El-Hamus studied at the National Film School in the UK where he was tutored by the likes of Stephen Frears, Paul Greengrass and Michael Mann. "The NFTS opened up a new world to draw inspiration from and it would be interesting to find our own middle ground."

For Van Aschat, De Libi was a complete change of direction after Nocturne , which was strongly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave. That was the attraction. As Van Aschat says, "I want to try as many things as possible. I always find (myself working with) directors looking for their voice and I thought, hey, I can work with different directors and try different things - I am schizophrenic and paradoxical in my tastes. I like American Graffiti just as much as I like Godard."

Van Aschat hopes to work with both El-Hamus and Van der Valk again - and is sure that no two films either of them make will ever be the same as its predecessor. The writer and his two director collaborators are part of a Dutch cinema culture which looks fresher and livelier at the moment than at any time in the past 20 years

SEE NL Magazine #35 May 2019 / Cannes - Annecy 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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