IDFA 2019: They Call me Babu
Culled from archive footage, Sandra Beerends' drama-doc They Call Me Babu is the fictionalised story of an Indonesian nanny, told over the course of a tumultuous 20th Century.
The word ‘babu' (a term which is these days considered offensive) refers specifically to the Indonesian nannies who worked for Dutch and European families in the former East Indies. In her beautiful and lyrical film, Beerends artificially, but movingly, constructs the life of one such nanny. The film is the result of years of research and interviews, and for which Beerends had to trawl through footage from some of the world's leading archives, including Eye and Beeld en Geluid. It is further supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and the Production Incentive.
Nanny Alima (unnamed in the film) narrates the story of her life to her dead mother. Hers is an existence that spans a period of profound turmoil, from colonial life under the Dutch to occupation by the Japanese during WW2, the bloody attempts to re-establish Belanda (Dutch) control, to Indonesia's eventual fight for independence. In between events, Alima cruises the world with her Dutch family, visiting sites such as the Pyramids and suffering stormy seas in the company of her beloved charge, the infant Jantje. For a year she enjoys an educative period in a civilised and respectful (as well as cold and windy) Holland, an interval of peace that Alima describes as "a brittle layer covering suppressed unrest."
All the time we are invited to immerse ourselves in black and white images of astonishing beauty and drama that detail the joy of family life, the minutae of Indonesian cultural and the bleakness of war and death. When Alima experiences snow for the first time she tells how she was "enchanted by the magical white sand". Later in the film, a small gang of Indonesian labourers play in an equally magical blizzard of fluffy seeds from the kapok trees, used to stuff pillows and mattresses. Active volcanoes on the island continually remind us of the volatile nature of the world Alima inhabits.
Director Beerends, the daughter of an Indonesian mother and a Dutch father, stresses how there was no fixed script during the production and that the footage she found could just as easily determine the trajectory of the narrative. The archive provided by one family, whose younger members are infant Jantje and the toddler Tilly, continually put their nanny in the forefront, therefore furnishing Beerends with fantastic opportunities to flesh out her heroine.
During her research Beerends found the same Tilly, now in her 90s, who, despite suffering from dementia, retained a clear childhood memory of her own Indonesian nanny. "She told me how she was a very intelligent woman and that the moment she arrived here in The Netherlands she became friendly with the Dutch servant, but that when the family returned to Indonesia just a year later she was able to read and write in Dutch," the director says. "She was so eager to learn everything around her. It was only one year of education but she really wanted to be educated."
Beerends was determined therefore to reflect the desire she recognised in the nannies to build a new Indonesia, especially for the next generation of girls. After she placed a newspaper ad asking for stories, she heard of one nanny who fled an arranged marriage to work with a European family, even endangering her life to visit them in the Japanese concentration camp on the island.
"After the war, the family asked her to come back to Europe but she refused. She said ‘My country needs me. You taught me a lot and you gave me opportunities, but my task is to show girls that they also have the right to go to school, and I want to strive for that'. Forty years later the family discovered that the nanny had worked her whole life at the Ministry of Education to fulfil her promise."
SEE NL Magazine #37 November 2019 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.