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IDFA 2020: Dealing With Death

22 November 2020

The Dutch Way of Death                               Dealing With Death by Paul Sin Nam Rigter

It all started with a newspaper article that Paul Sin Nam Rigter read by chance, the director tells SeeNL. He discovered a major Dutch funeral company was planning to build a brand new funeral home in Bijlmer, a suburb of Amsterdam.

"It's an area with a lot of different cultures and ethnicities. That fascinated me," Rigter recalls of how he came to make Dealing With Death, screening in IDFA Competition for Dutch Documentary. "It's a real melting pot. I think it has over 120 ethnicities and cultures."

Rigter wondered how the funeral company would cater to all these different nationalities whose approach to funerals are very different to the white Dutch protestants.

In order to make the film, Rigter needed to gain the trust of both Anita van Loon, the white Dutch woman running the planned funeral home, and of the many different communities the home hoped would make use of its services. Bijlmer is home to big populations of Ghanaians, Surinamese and Chinese. "They all have their own churches and their own rituals. I've been in churches in the bottom of a parking garage and to the mosques. I've been everywhere," the director says of his painstaking research.

Van Loon was immediately enthusiastic. "She was the manager of this funeral company and it was her mission to engage all the different communities to participate," the director recalls. "The funeral company realised they were very Dutch. They really had good intentions to get to know the Bijlmer population but there was always this little distance they couldn't overcome. It was something I felt and that she (Anita) probably felt as well. That was something which really fascinated me because on a larger scale, it could be applied to Dutch society and to western society in general."

Rigter also had to decide whether he was the right person to undertake the documentary. It would require him to be there with his crew at moments when his subjects were dealing with grief and would be emotionally at their most vulnerable. ''I thought about it a lot beforehand, whether ethically I could do this...I thought that if I do this, I have to relate it to my own emotions and memories of people I loved. I thought if I kept that in mind, I would be able to do it in a proper way, without being intrusive."

In the end, the director's solution was to put aside his emotions and to concentrate on the many practical and technical challenges facing him and his crew.

Dealing With Death took a small eternity to shoot, over five years. "The main reason it took so long was the delay to the building process of the new funeral centre," Rigter recalls. The building had originally been due to open in 2016 but that date was continually put back thanks to the internal politics of the funeral company and all the predictable bureaucratic wrangling. At a certain point, it looked as if the centre might be abandoned. 

It also took the director considerable time to become accepted by all the different communities whose funeral rites he hoped to film. He knew that for Dealing With Death to work, at least half the film needed to be from the point of view of the inhabitants of the Bijlmer.

Ask him what kind of funeral services he most preferred of those he witnessed and the director responds immediately. "The ones that are more about celebrating life than grieving about death...with the Ghanaians and Surinam people, it [the funeral] is more a rite of passage than an end point, which in western society is more of the case."

Dealing With Death was made through Witfilm. The director pays tribute to his producers, Iris Lammertsma and Jantien Ekkes, who stuck with the project over the many years it took to finance. What's more, they never put him under pressure to rush the completion of the film.

Now Rigter wants his subjects to see the film. "The way I always envisaged it was that the population of the Bijlmer would come to IDFA - and the other way round, that this movie would go and show in the Bijlmer area. Of course, Covid really destroyed a lot of this. We can now only witness this film in a huge cinema with only 30 people which is really heartbreaking...It is still my goal to bring together these two really separate worlds, the world of the Bijlmer suburb and the culture elite of Amsterdam."

For further reading: 
-> SEE NL Magazine Online, November 2020 / IDFA Doc issue 
-> Line-Up Dutch Docs At IDFA 2020 
-> Watch: Showreel Dutch Documentaries IDFA 2020

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