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IDFA 2020: Lost On Arrival

21 November 2019

Journey without memory                  Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum's Lost On Arrival

Amsterdam-based artists and filmmakers Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum talk to SeeNL about their Lost On Arrival, which world-premieres In IDFA Competition for Short Documentary.

In Lost On Arrival, we see a still image of a veranda as we listen to a man speaking on the phone, talking about his desire to head back home to Curaçao, where he once lived. The man sounds intelligent and articulate, but his memory is faltering. Language is letting him down. Almost all of his statements turn into questions as he tries to work out what is happening to him.

The film was directed by Amsterdam-based artists and filmmakers Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum, who go under the single name of PolakVanBekkum. They have been working together for many years.

"We really like it. We are our [own] peers," Van Bekkum says of their collaboration and the way they can review and talk through each other's ideas. "We get along together."

There is no fixed routine to the way they approach new projects. However, Lost on Arrival is a film with extra personal resonance for Van Bekkum. The man with the dementia, struggling to make sense of the world, is Van Bekkum's own father.

"He does sound so very coherent," the director reflects on the paradox of dementia. "The way he speaks is normal. I won't dive too deep into the whole biographical side of this but he started having dementia, or the first signs of it, in 2010. The recordings which we use for this film are from 2012-2018."

Van Bekkum started recording the phone conversations with his father, then in St Maarten (in The Caribbean), partly because he was beginning to distrust his own memory. "He [his father] would act as if things that we had talked about really didn't exist at all."

The father would sometimes grow irritated with Ivar's advice and didn't want to talk about his memory loss. They had some harsh arguments. The father had moved to the Caribbean but "mentally, he never really knew he was there." That was the point at which Van Bekkum and Polak decided to make the film, "about the lost on arrival situation. He is moving somewhere, some people call it oblivion. We thought this was a really beautiful but painful story."

Van Bekkum suggests that he and Polak are able to deal with such deeply personal subject matter because the films have "this artistic focus on landscape and mobility - mobility in the landscape. We could always fall back on that point of view."

The film works as a companion piece to the pair's The Ride, shot on Google Earth and selected for IDFA 2019, which is described as a response to a relived, and tragic, experience. "That movie was about Esther's mother," says Van Bekkum.

During the editing, Van Bekkum began looking at Lost On Arrival more as a film he needed to complete than a personal testament. "I was pretty annoyed with my own voice," he admits of how he sounded in the calls with his father. "In my voice, I heard the constant (sound of) reproach. Basically, I blamed him for a lot of things...so I took my voice out. Suddenly, this normal human being appeared to me, this older man having his memory loss."

Why the static image of the veranda as the backdrop to the recordings? "This is the veranda from the house in Curaçao. Basically, when my father called me, he was always on this veranda. The only thing he did was sit there, looking outside and trying to make something of his world," Van Bekkum observes.

"We notice in the work we make, that using aesthetic imagery, with very little change in it, can really make you focus better on the spoken word...his words say enough. The words are so clear, and the story is so clear. This space he is living in, the sounds and the view, is enough to give the story the depth it should have."

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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