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The River Runs Both Ways: Reconsidering Dutch Exploration
November 20, 2009 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm EST
The evening will present a scintillating exploration of colonization, imperialism and historical revisionism as the 400-year anniversary celebration of Henry Hudson’s exploration winds down! First, a special screening of Mother Dao the Turtlelike (1995), an adventurous award-winning assembly of songs, poetry and nitrate films of 400-years of Dutch occupation of Indonesia from acclaimed Dutch film auteur Vincent Monnikendam. The screening will be followed by an insightful discussion with Union College Professor of History Andrew Feffer and RPI Professor of Anthropology Tamar Gordon about the broad implications of Dutch “discoveries” across the globe and our peculiar location at the end of this long historical tether.
The featured film for the evening is Mother Dao the Turtlelike, an international award-winning compilation of clips from documentaries and propaganda films shot by Dutch cameramen between 1912 and 1932 in their former colony of Indonesia. The film contrasts the lives of wealthy colonial rulers, who bark out orders while clad in immaculately white outfits, with the hopeless situation of the native people, who are victims of a brutal economic exploitation. Much of the footage used to be shown in the Netherlands as an illustration of the beneficial effect of the Dutch presence, but nowadays it merely evokes negative associations. Apart from images of economic repression, Mother Dao the Turtlelike contains archive footage that details the cultural and religious expressions of the indigenous people. The original footage had no soundtrack, but the filmmaker has added natural sounds from Indonesia, indigenous music, and recited poetry, but no voice-over. The film’s title refers to a mythical story that, according to the inhabitants of the island of Nias, situated to the west of Sumatra, explains the origin of creation.
Constructed entirely from colonialist documentaries shot by whites in the former Dutch East Indies, this film succeeds in giving these racist clips a new meaning. This film uses the colonizers’ own propaganda to condemn their mission to Westernize indigenous groups, revealing how colonialism corrupted the culture of everyday life. Moreover, the Dutch settlers are shown living in isolated capsules of Western life, reproduced and maintained by forced labor.
Mother Dao the Turtlelike has been screened at forty-eight international film festivals and has received eighteen awards and prizes, among them five Golden Awards. The film was proclaimed the best Dutch film of 1995.
Close to a million feet of 35mm documentary nitrate film footage from the Dutch film archives served as the source material for this documentary. In a span of ninety minutes the film aims to show how the Netherlands administered its colony as a colonial enterprise and what the relations were like at the time. The usual commentary has been omitted and in its place poems and songs in Bahasa Indonesia have been included in a digital sound composition.
In “Mother Dao the Turtlelike,” the viewer sees how the colonial machinery in the 1920s was implanted in a world so different from Western Europe. He or she will witness various phenomena and aspects of that colonial enterprise–then at its peak–which, thanks to cinematography, were recorded. The shoots for the more than one thousand 35mm nitrate documentary films took place in the Dutch West Indies between 1912 and about 1933. All belong to the collections of the two Dutch film archives, and in the meantime the main corpus has been preserved.
The documentary starts with a shortened version of the legend of the inhabitants of Nias, an isle to the West of Sumatra. It was told that the earth was created by Mother Dao. When standing on the beach, the inhabitants of the island could see the horizon half curved like the shell of a turtle. So they called the creator of the world “Mother Dao the Turtlelike. At some point in time eternal, she collected the dirt off her body and kneaded it on her knee into a ball. That was the world. Later, she became pregnant, without knowing a man, and gave birth to a girl and a boy. They were the first people and they lived in a fertile world. And it was this fertile world that attracted the Europeans, and especially the Dutch, in their colonial endeavors.
About The Director
Vincent Monnikendam was born in 1936 in Hague, the Netherlands. For 30 years from 1964 onwards, worked as director, producer, editor of documentary film for NOS-TV and NPS-TV. In 1995 he went independent, and continues his activities as a documentary filmmaker. Most of his works concern issues such as immigrants and race problems. They include: District 69, depicting the life in the immigrants ghetto in Hague; The Ten Token, a five-part film on Turkish and Greek immigrants in the Netherlands; and The Illegals, a documentary on illegal Turkish and Moroccan workers in the Greenhouse industry, for which Monnikendam spent 6 months living amongst the workers. In 1995 completed Mother Dao the Turtlelike which took 6 years in production, and was acclaimed at documentary film festivals all over the world.
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