Thursday, June 16, 2011

Joris Ivens and the Legend of Indonesia Calling

A short political documentary made in 1945 was all but successfully silenced by the Dutch authorities at the time, but later became legendary, played a role in the struggle for Indonesian independence and marked a significant episode in Australian labour history.

Joris Ivens was born into a family of Dutch photographers and had already made his first film as a teenager. A communist as well as a maker of experimental, artistic documentary films, by the late 1930s Ivens had built an impressive oeuvre of politically motivated, socially critical documentaries. While making films on the Spanish Civil War (1937) and Chinese resistance to the Japanese (1938) he had worked with Orson Wells, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa and Lillian Hellman. The outbreak of World War Two found him living in the U.S.A., but when Germany invaded the Soviet Union Ivens offered his services as a film-maker to the Dutch government-in-exile.
Joris Ivens
On September 28th 1944, despite his known communist affiliations, he was appointed Film Commissioner of the Netherlands East Indies. He accepted the position because he had been convinced that the Dutch, in a post-Japan East Indies, would work steadily towards independence for the Indonesians. Having arrived in Australia in early 1945 however, he quickly discovered that many of the members of the Netherlands Indies government-in-exile there had plans for the future of the Dutch East Indies that were contrary to his own. The situation came to a head when the Japanese surrender was followed by Sukarno and Hatta’s declaration of Indonesian independence on 17th August 1945. When the Dutch set sail from Australia to return to their former colony, a mutiny broke out among Indonesian seamen. This was followed by Australian dockworkers’ refusal to load Dutch ships. By September trade unions and community groups organized demonstrations, petitions and actions to stall the Dutch. Indian and Chinese seamen refused to man the ships. Australian soldiers in Borneo and elsewhere in the region signed petitions declaring support for Indonesia. Moved by the plight of the Indonesians and by the international solidarity demonstrated by Chinese, Indian and Australian workers, Ivens quit his official Dutch government position in November 1945. By this stage, in secret and against great odds, he had begun making Indonesia Calling. When the film was released in 1946 it was obviously not the film the Dutch government had wanted. Instead of depicting the Dutch return to their colony, and their noble mission to civilize the natives, Ivens had documented, or rather represented the Indonesian struggle for independence.
Indonesians Protest for Independence 1945
The film premiered in Sydney, Australia on 9th August 1946. The first audience included many Indonesians and the evening featured songs from Indonesian, Chinese and Australian workers. A copy of the film was ceremonially presented to a representative of the Indonesian republican government for President Soekarno, though this was strictly symbolic because there were no copies and what was presented was not the film but an empty can. Ivens noted in his diary: “Never before have I been so aware of the renewal of the link between artist and audience. We were on trial that evening, and our testimony would be judged, not only by the small group of 25 witnesses, but by the whole Indonesian people”. Work on the film had been done in secret and no credits appeared on the screen, protecting those involved. The Australian authorities first bowed to pressure from the Dutch government and issued an export ban, but by the end of 1946 a new Labour government was in power and after a screening of the film for the entire new cabinet the export ban was lifted. One of the first countries to buy the film was the Soviet Union. The film was shown in the USA, Great Britain and France. In the latter two countries it was hailed as the first post-World War anti-colonial film. A Malay version was smuggled by Ted Roach, an Australian trade-unionist, into Republican held areas of Indonesia. In 2009 the Australian film director John Hughes released a documentary about the making of Indonesia Calling, entitled Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens and Australia. In an article evaluating the impact of Ivens’ short work he quotes one Indonesian, Rabin Hardjadibrata, who remembered seeing Indonesia Calling as a teenager in West Java in 1947: “it was indeed a surprise to see that here is a country well known for being ‘white Australia’, and yet they are supporting us”. In 1948 the film was due to be shown at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland but was withdrawn after objections by the Dutch government. Even in 1962, long after Indonesian independence, the conservative Minister for Foreign Affairs Joseph Luns refused to send a representative to the Dutch Film Days at a film festival in West Germany because of the inclusion of Indonesia Calling in the programme.
Scene from Indonesia Calling
 The film had no chance of passing the Board of Film Censors in The Netherlands and Ivens didn’t waste his time trying. Dutch film goers were denied the opportunity of viewing Joris Ivens’ Indonesia Calling. Ivens left Australia in early 1947 and arrived in Holland, en route to Czechoslovakia. He did show the film to some members of the Dutch Communist Party and an artist’s group called De Kring. A number of left-wing newspapers carried articles about Ivens and the communist newspaper De Waarheid published a series of four articles in the space of two weeks, singing his praises, but none mentioned Indonesia Calling for the simple reason that its existence was still known to only a few.

Gradually the film was mythologised and became a symbol, even for those who had never seen it (and that was most). By the mid-1960s Indonesia Calling had become a film that had a growing following in Holland, long before it had an audience. This made it unique in the history of the cinema. In its symbolic form it intervened in the historical process, shaping memory and providing a site for the articulation of diametrically opposing approaches to the national, and indeed international, past. The facticity of the film become tangential to it most significant impact. The film as fact had been replaced by the film as signifier. Against the background of the Cold War, one’s opinion of the (unseen) film signified one’s positions in the context of decolonization and post-colonialism and within the narration of the national past.
Scene from Indonesia Calling
For the Dutch public, by the early 1960s, for the non-audience that had become the following, that is, for the many who by now had heard of the film but had never or rarely actually seen it, the rights and wrongs of Indonesia Calling had become bound up with the fate of its maker. Many accepted the view that the Dutch director had suffered persecution because of his telling the truth about the Dutch and Indonesia. It is true that in the increasingly oppressive climate of the Cold War, and just a few months after Indonesia had achieved independence, Ivens had had his Dutch passport seized by the Dutch authorities for a few months. Although it was soon returned to him, for a number of years while living in Eastern Europe he had to renew his passport every three months, so the Dutch authorities could monitor the whereabouts of someone they considered to be a dangerous communist and a possible betrayer of national interests.

In 1964 the Dutch Film Museum and the Amsterdam Film Academy decided to organize a public celebration of the director’s 65th birthday and he returned to The Netherlands in February for a week-long festival in his honour. On his 70th birthday there were more official celebrations and the Dutch Minister of Culture, Recreation and Social Work had a number of meetings with Ivens and offered to finance a new documentary. Only a small group of adverseries in The Hague, led by Joseph Luns at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were still fighting a rearguard action against the great director. By the time of his eightieth birthday Ivens was feted worldwide. Long celebrated and at times revered by officials in the USSR, East Germany and Cuba, he had been welcomed to North Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh and to the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong and Zhu Enlai. But in Western Europe his contributions to film had been recognized and honoured as well. Spain’s government had awarded him a gold medal for his services to art, in France he had been made a Commander of the Legion of Honour, in Italy he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Merit.
Scene from Indonesia Calling

Among the journalists in his home country there now was a near consensus that Indonesia Calling had led to his unjust persecution, and calls for amendment were heard by the government. During the celebrations for his eightieth birthday the Dutch Minister for Overseas Development presented Ivens with an award for his services to the promotion of development issues in 1978. In 1985 the jury of the Dutch Film Days in Utrecht decided to award Ivens a Golden Calf. But Ivens, who lived in Paris, requested that the government’s minister should travel to Paris and present him the award there. Prime Minister Lubbers complied and the Minister of Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs was dispatched to Paris.

At a ceremony at the French-Dutch Institute the minister presented Ivens with the award. In his speech, the minister’s words included: “Shortly after the war, your support for Indonesia’s right to self-determination and your film Indonesia Calling brought you into conflict with the Dutch government (…) I can now say that history has come down more on your side than on the side of your adversaries”.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Berlinde de Bruyckere in the Saatchi Gallery, London

I've just returned from a marvellous week of theatre in London, where I also dropped into the Saatchi Gallery.  I immediately recognised the work of the Flemish artist Berlinde de Bruyckere, who I wrote about in a recent post.

While her horse in Zurich's Kunsthaus is gray, in the Saatchi Gallery she has two black horses. The first is headless and legless, a piece of beautiful meat, exhibited in a vitrine. The second has all of the beautiful curves of a Henry Moore sculpture, but the soft sheen of the coat lacks the hardness of bronze. The beauty of these horses brings an overwhelming sense of sadness. The fact that they are now naked to our observation gave me the same feeling of unease that I had when viewing the Egyptian Mummies in the British Museum.  It does seem obscene to be pleasantly walking about, viewing these magnificent creatures in their deathly silence and stillness.

De Bruyckere's third work, Marthe, is a sculpture in wax of a headless woman, standing in an open vitrine, her uterus gone, her guts poring out, one long arm extended, claw-like to the ground. There is something Ovidian about this transformation. The realism of the execution, with its whites, reds and blues, makes the image all the more horrifying.

It has often been said that art is always about love and death. De Bruyckere's work is certainly about death. The horses, in their silent deathliness, possess a terrible beauty. And the visceral, painful realism of Marthe, is a reminder of the fragilty of life, the presence of suffering.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Rodchenko and Ai Weiwei in Photography Museum, Winterthur

What a stroke of genius by the Photography Museum Winterthur, Switzerland, to run two parallel exhibitions, "Alexander Rodchenko - Revolution in Photography" and "Ai Weiwei-Interlacing".

photo:paul doolan
The Russian constructivist Alexander Rodchenko needs little introduction, having taken photos that  became such icons of the Russian communist revolution, that many of them now grace history textbooks worldwide, like his famous portrait "Pioneer" from 1930.

Alexander RodtschenkoPioneer girl, 1930
Gelatin-silver print, Vintage print
56 x 43,1 cm
Moscow House of Photography Museum
© Rodchenko’s Archive / 2011, ProLitteris, Zürich

Rodchenko became the leading spokesperson for those Russian avant guarde artists who threw in their lot with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and put their art in the service of the great cause of creating a world of peace and justice. Of course we know it turned into a totalitarian nightmare, against which Ai Weiwei is now one of the most famous current victims.  When we view Rodchenko's early, optimistic works, we are forced to admire his craftsmanship and his ingenious originality, but we inevitably see this through eyes laced with irony. Who can read Rodchenko's words "The camera lens is the eye of civilized man in a socialist society."(1928), and not be struck by a sense of sadness, knowing that this was the year Stalin commenced the first Five-Year Plan. It seems quite heartbreaking to read "My creative path has not been easy, but it is clear to me who I was and what I want. I am certain that in the future I will make genuine Soviet works" (1935), knowing that the year marks the beginning of the Great Purges and that the near future will mean the dismemberment of Lenin's original party, the murder of millions and a gigantic war against Nazi Germany that will kill 20,000,000 Russians.

Alexander Rodchenko
Caricature Showing Osip Brik, variant of a cover for LEF Magazine, 1924
Gelatin-silver print
24,2 x 17,9 cm
Private collection
© Rodchenko’s Archive /
2011, ProLitteris, Zurich

The career of Rodchenko draws inevitable comparison with that of the ingenious Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.  Both seemed to have been obsessed with montage in their early work, both are idealists who put their work in the service of bringing about a political revolution, and both become disillusioned by that same revolution towards the end of their lives.

Alexander RodchenkoGirl with a Leica, 1934
Gelatin-silver print, Vintage print
45 x 29,5 cm
Private collection
© Rodchenko’s Archive /
2011, ProLitteris, Zurich

Ai Weiwei is another politically motivated artist, one who lives with the consequences of the victory of communism.  But unlike Rodchenko, instead of supporting the communist state, he has used his photos and film, in all their wonderful quirkiness, to attack the absurdity and hubris of state power.  The cost has been huge.  As part of this exhibition Ai Weiwei was supposed to give a talk in Winterthur last week - but as we all know by now, China's most internationally famous artist has disappeared into the Chinese labryint of oppression, having been arrested on April 3rd.

His "June 1994" must surely bring a smile to most faces, with the contrast between, on the one hand, the officials in uniform and the man standing stiffly for a photo outside the Forbidden City with its image of Chairman Mao, and, on the other hand, the pretty woman who faces us and raises her dress to give us a glimpse of her knickers. As I said, the irreverence will bring a smile to most, but certainly a scowl from the members of the Party.
Ai WeiweiJune 1994, 1994
C-print, 117,5 x 152 cm
© Ai Weiwei

And, as if to make sure that the message does not get lost, here is an image from his series "Study of Perspective":

Ai WeiweiStudy of Perspective – Tiananmen, 1995-2010
C-print, 32,5 x 43,5 cm
© Ai Weiwei

The most impressive part of this exhibition is when one steps into a large room to be surrounded by dozens a large coloured prints called "Provisional Landscapes".  These cityscapes are in transition (Provisional) because of the Chinese government's scorch-earth policy towards its own past and present. In its myopic drive towards the future and modernization it is willing to destroy entire neighbourhoods, an easy thing to do when the state owns all of the land.

Ai WeiweiProvisional Landscapes, 2002-2008
Diptych, Inkjet-prints, each 66 x 84 cm
© Ai Weiwei

This disregard for the past is captured by Ai Weiwei's self-portrait triptych "Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn":
Ai Weiwei
Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn, 1995
Triptych, C-prints, each 150 x 166 cm

I must admit to a sense of unease as I walked around this exhibition yesterday with my family. Having soaked in the images, we had lunch in the museum's Restaurant George.  The children bought a few souvenirs of the day. It was a wonderful way to spend Ascension Thursday. The unease came from knowing that Ai Weiwei has not been able to enjoy this. It is an outrage that, instead, he languishes in an unknown prison in China.