Right when a new minority coalition is laboriously coming into being in the Netherlands, two new documentaries try and shed an informative light on recent Dutch politics. Things have been messy in Dutch politics for quite a while.
In 2000, Dutch publicist Paul Scheffer wrote an essay entitled “The Multicultural Drama”, arguing the failure of multiculturalism in the Netherlands. It set off a huge debate. Since 9/11, the Netherlands has allied itself with the United States in their War on Terror. In May 2002, days before the general election, Pim Fortuyn, the first politician to be openly critical of Islam and popular because of it, was murdered. His party won but proved a poor coalition partner in the first Balkenende cabinet. It fell in just a few months.
Criticism on Islam grew though, with parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the late Theo van Gogh, murdered in 2004, at the forefront. In 2006, Hirsi Ali nearly lost her Dutch citizenship in an attempt by the then Minister for Immigration, Rita Verdonk, to underscore her determination and law-abiding attitude. Hirsi Ali resigned and left for the USA. The affair ended the second Balkenende cabinet. Fortuyn’s party was now in ruins and disappeared. Enter Geert Wilders and his antiIslam Party for Freedom, which won the elections last June, after the fourth and final Balkenende cabinet fell. This ultra brief overview shows that a documentary reflecting on recent politics might not be overdue. Two filmmakers got a chance to do just that.
In Wilders – The Movie, filmmakers Joost van der Valk and Mags Gavan try to portray Geert Wilders. One of Wilders’ pet topics is that certain media are left wing and conspiring against him. Arts and culture are leftist hobbies. So Van der Valk is his own worst enemy when he keeps introducing himself as being from VPRO television, which is considered leftist/ progressive. And Van der Valk isn’t even from VPRO television. Failing to get to speak to Wilders, he and Gavan follow every single lead they find in an effort to find something out about Wilders: leads to his past, his friends and enemies, his voters and financiers and his political allies – just about anyone. But the film lacks direction.
Van der Valk and Gavan put out many feelers; they travel to the US and Israel but they don’t get anywhere. The film lacks focus and structure. Lacking Wilders, Van der Valk seems to have put himself in the film, which is quite annoying. And after 75 minutes it suddenly ends. All we have learned by then is that Wilders had dark long curls when he was young and that he used to paint. Unintentionally, the only thing Van der Valk and Gavan show us is that Wilders does not wish to account for himself. But we really already knew that too.
The Lie by Robert Oey reconstructs the Hirsi Ali affair, which toppled the second Balkenende cabinet. The film starts with a reconstruction composed of TV images: the story as we know it, the images and sounds we all may have seen. Oey then skilfully combines interviews and accounts from major players with the story of a refugee family, archive material, and vox popoli from a radio show. Using images of everyday activities and the Dutch landscape, he anchors the film firmly in the Netherlands. Oey makes two distinct choices in an effort to heighten the drama of the period: he creates dialogues between some of the participants and, more remarkable, he lets some of them sing.
The dialogues work to a certain extent. They create an opportunity for those involved to share their experiences and exchange points of view, instead of having to talk to an interviewer. However, most of the major players are in dialogue with someone who wasn’t part of the affair. So there is no exchange but to some extent still a questionanswer relationship. And a couple of players are actually interviewed. The songs are meant to express the participants’ feelings and inner thoughts. However, they were written by someone else, the lyrics are very straightforward and the music is all too lovey-dovey. For me, it doesn’t work. With the innumerable TV talent shows on today, it becomes a pastiche.
Oey has been praised for his choices and received a nomination from the Association of Dutch Film Critics jury at the Netherlands Film Festival because of his innovative style. But form can never be a goal in itself. Certainly for films that try to reconstruct and illuminate a specific political period or event, form should serve rather than distract. What is missing is an account of Hirsi Ali herself. She is present in the film but her own position and motives are not addressed (and she doesn’t sing). She has always been an ambitious lady, fighting her way from refugee to influential parliamentarian. But she admits she never wanted to be a politician. She just wanted a platform to voice her opinion, and parliament was the option that came along.
The next step was simply a matter of time and was already there when the affair started. One suggestion is that this very ambition was responsible for what happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The Netherlands has traditionally been a tolerant country – except when you turn out to be bright and ambitious. And that is what did Hirsi Ali in. Or was it a minister who was unwilling to use her discretion and just wanted to implement the law, as others have suggested?
The only common denominator in these two films seems to be contemporary politicians hiding their true agendas. They don’t want to account for themselves, they are insubstantial and they don’t seem to have any creative or illuminating ideas. They just want law and order and more of it. Given the current coalition, a change for the better is unlikely any time soon.