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”.


  1. Hello:
    What a truly amazing story. The strength of human spirit to fight a cause is always we feel something not to be underestimated. Ivens was certainly a man with a cause and how wonderful that he was prepared to sacrifice everything in pursuit of the goal he knew to be just.

    We were most interested to note that Ivens [of whom we had not heard] worked with the Hungarian born Robert Capa of whom we know much more. We attended a private view of a major exhibition of Robert Capa's work in the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest which was a fascinating record of lives and places in the 1930s and 40s.

  2. Hello Jane and Lance,
    I was happy to be able to factor in a Hungarian connection :-)
    It is funny how we remember famous film directors and photographers, but documentary film makers do tend to be forgotten except for a specialised group. Many of Ivens' film were, until very recently, not available on DVD. Indonesia Calling is now available, but only in an expensive collection of five DVDs.