Return of the Master: Retel Helmrich
During the shooting of his new film The Long Season in Lebanon earlier this year, multiple award-winning director Leonard Retel Helmrich had a heart attack. He went for 9 minutes without oxygen, which left him in a coma. After a month, he was transported back home to Holland where he is recovering slowly.
Retel Helmrich is one of the giants of international documentary, an inventor as well as a director, and pioneer of single shot cinema. The Long Season follows the daily lives of Syrian refugees in Majdal Anjar, where they were staying in tents within a camp. The project started as a TV documentary but Retel Helmrich soon decided to make it as a real film, staying in Lebanon for over a year. “If you belong to the refugees, you can only be surprised at the resilience of people in these humiliating circumstances,” Retel Helmrich had previously said of his subjects.
The director, working with Syrian artist and sculptor Ramia Suleiman, had already shot much of the material and a four-hour timeline was in place. His producer Pieter van Huystee, who has now completed the film, spent two months mulling over the project before deciding that he should try to finish it. (Proceeds from the documentary will go toward Retel Helmrich’s care.)
“Last weekend Leonard saw the film,” revealed Van Huystee in early November. “He is now able to slowly express himself by pointing out letters on a letter board. He ‘said’ it’s a good expression of single shot cinema. And then put his thumb up to me. As you can imagine we were very moved by it.”
The producer explains how Retel Helmrich approached The Long Season in his usual fluid, free-wheeling fashion, with long, elaborate shots in which the filmmaker gets very close to his subjects and follows them at their most intimate moments. “He was very joyful, with a very young spirit,” Van Huystee remembers of the shoot. Retel Helmrich would encourage others to use the camera too, encouraging them and training them in the techniques he had pioneered. As in his previous films, notably The Position Among the Stars, the director gives an insider’s view of his subjects very different from the detached, observational style of so many other documentary makers. In particular, he shows the perspective of the women and the children inside the camps.
Suleiman lived in the Netherlands during the editing, staying in Van Huystee’s home. Van Huystee points out that the biggest influence on the post-production was the director himself. Retel Helmrich is a teacher as well as a filmmaker and has given many workshops and lectures. “In that sense, we know his thoughts about how to cut, when to cut and what not to cut.” Van Huystee and Suleiman therefore steeped themselves in the director’s earlier works, paying particular attention to his use of sound editing. Their challenge was to be true to the director’s spirit while retaining a creative vision of their own that went beyond simply copying his techniques.
The two may now collaborate on a sequel to The Long Season. With Raqqa “liberated” from Isis, it could well now be safe for the refugees to return home, and the filmmakers are planning to follow them. “We are prepared. If somebody would move next week to Raqqa, we would join them with our camera,” Van Huystee says.
Following its IDFA premiere, the film, which received Film Fund production support, will be released in Dutch cinemas by Mokum Film Distribution. Films Transit is handling the international sales.
Whatever happens to the film, Van Huystee is determined to make sure that the director’s original vision is protected. “The ego had to step aside so that there is always space for Leonard to be there.”
The Long Season screens in feature-length documentary competition at IDFA 2017.
SEE NL Magazine #29 November 2017 / 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.