Between art and politics; the Johan van der Keuken Prediction

Is it a coincidence that the Arab spring started precisely where Johan van der Keuken decided to shoot The Master and the Giant (De Meester en de Reus, 1980) in 1979, a film about the unfair global economic system which runs the world and determines our lives and our futures? It was surely not a coincidence, because Van der Keuken used to feel deeply concerned about human destiny as an indivisible whole, as his distributor, Pierre-Olivier Bardet witnesses: “In his work, the documentary, however infused with social and political preoccupations and a radical questioning of North-South relationships, rediscovered its place at the heart of the cinematic art, breaking down barriers between categories of militant cinema: the environment, women’s liberation, workers’ struggle, etc.”  The film links the Tunisian peasant living in the desert with the North European (Dutch) middle class citizen facing unemployment and taxes.  Very early on already, and with a deeply visionary perception, he saw that there was not a dichotomy between North and South but between the neo-capitalists; those who  make money on the backs of the others, the “Subalterns”: those who are excluded from wealth and power.

´What I am saying here about politics appears to me to be in sharp contrast with art and culture. And this is precisely what someone like Johan van der Keuken tried to say over thirty years ago.´

Indeed, this is still a topical film.  First of all because the Dutch filmmaker was a genius who was able to analyse the way in which human history works. It is also because he had enough humanism and openness toward the Other for him to believe in human unity before evil. But it is primarily because he had such deep perspicacity in the way he looked at reality, that he could see the symptoms of what we are facing today: tumbling from one crisis into another, acting according to the crisis. In fact, since 2008 at least, politics are decided on the emergency of the fight against financial recession.

Let’s not forget that this 32 year old film is the combination of the director’s visionary talent and the analyses by the Canadian economist Claude Ménard. It is based on two important ideas: the hold capitalism has on western society, including the migrant communities, on one hand and the overexploitation of nature for industrial purposes on the other hand. Using a highly intelligent editing process, Van der Keuken alternates fictional scenes showing the inhuman face of a tax collector, with other very poetic ones with cubs, trees and the wind engaging in conversation, and finally documentary scenes of the archaic life in a small village in the south of Tunisia. At the time the main idea of the film was that our life was becoming increasingly more artificial and the risk of losing its meaning was growing. The emigration is considered from that very simple statement: immigrants are trapped in their dream of the northern wealth and prosperity when they leave their original way of life. The opposition of the two lifestyles is clearly in favour of the picturesque proximity of man to nature in the small village, lost at the doors of the African desert.

Shot in 1979, the film is a poetic pamphlet against the growing power of banks on the men’s lives. From that point of view, the two men predicted what we are now confronted with. Indeed, the film gains a new soul if we look at it through the prism of current events: it pinpoints the link between the so-called Arab Spring and the world’s economic instability. For several years now we have witnessed a watershed mankind’s history: 9/11, global warming, financial crisis, fluctuation of oil prices, spectacular growth of Asian economies, the Arab Spring, recession in southern European countries, instability of the Euro and the Dollar, the occupy movement, the budget cuts policy, etc. It is like the 1929 recession, the 1973 oil crisis and the cultural revolution of May 1968, all rolled into one.

´When we take a close look at the connection between the so-called Arab Spring and the so-called economic crisis, we could easily think that the way the other group is perceived, is perhaps changing.´

At this point one should take a renewed look at the way the author of The Way South (De Weg naar het Zuiden, 1981) places Dutch squatters and Moroccan immigrants in a very eloquent parallelism at the beginning of this other precocious film. One group fights for the right to have a house to live in and occupies empty buildings and luxurious apartments in the Kinkerstraat in Amsterdam. The other group occupies a Church as a sign of protest against the government’s decision to send them back to their country. By some strange coincidence this film also ends in Egypt, the second country of the Arab Spring. Van der Keuken pays special attention to the Egyptian wretches, those who are not a part of the economical flow and who initiated the Tahrir Square sit-in one year ago. It cannot be a coincidence that the filmmaker went to these two countries to tell a story which remains relevant in our time: the injustice of the economic world order.

When we take a close look at the connection between the so-called Arab Spring and the so-called economic crisis, we could easily think that the way the other group is perceived, is perhaps changing. Some political parties are reviewing their programs to make them more humane; some even talk about compassion and the enriching role of immigration. The discussion on squatting has ended, or at least been marginalized, but the issue of emigration is like a Chinese puzzle for any politician. The main reason is that it was never considered in any other way, than from the narrow and biased angle of an unfair policy serving the interests of the bourses, the traders and the multinational banks. Of course there is no way then to consider things from a human point of view, nor from a cultural one.  Not yet, not enough.

What is relevant for art and culture is, most of the time, not valid for politics. This is particularly true when it comes to emigration. The last couple of years, it was admitted within the European political spheres that integration policy has failed. Such a statement is more than disputable. It is intended to discredit migrants while it should be understood, first of all, as a confession of failure on the part of the politicians themselves, if it is a failure at all. If the process of integration has failed, it is because politicians could never, or never did, want to find the right answer and the appropriate policy. Migrants always were and still are considered by politicians as a foreign entity, accepted only in as far as they are needed by the host society, not necessarily for themselves and merely when they are somehow an answer to a political need. This means that the statement about the failure of integration is made according to a monolithic vision, a way of thinking according to pragmatic goals and rational strategies which are simply the component of hegemonic attitudes. That is why, when the physical presence of this entity surpasses the need of the local society, it is stigmatised as the source of all evil. This attitude leads to the rise of extreme right parties.

What I am saying here about politics appears to me to be in sharp contrast with art and culture. And this is precisely what someone like Johan van der Keuken tried to say over thirty years ago. A statement like that cannot be in line with the spirit of the so-called “Old Continent”, the continent of the human rights and the Aufklärung, to put it briefly. However, this spirit of the “Old Continent” is still to be found in the realm of European art and culture. From the pragmatic and egoistic argument of the direct use and assimilation of the Other, we shift to a complex and enriching real interaction on the name or ideas of beauty, authenticity and humanism. Integration is then given another meaning and hence becomes possible.

Here I ignore the number of immigrant European politicians and businessmen, who are part of the European elite. Nor do I speak of the number of soccer players or sportsmen who defend European flags in international tournaments. They are not considered numerous enough to speak of successful integration politics. But such a reasoning can lead to another extreme; can you imagine a national soccer team with ten players who are second or third generation immigrants? An inconceivable thought for the extreme right wing way of thinking.
What I want to stress is the emergence of artists within the context of immigration. A Moroccan actor who is nominated for best Dutch actor will annoy purist nationalists, but if he actually wins, it will make it worse; they will be exacerbated. In a situation like this, you can hear a very eloquent sentence addressed to politicians who don’t believe in integration : “ I am Dutch and I am proud of my Moroccan blood”, said Nasrdin Dchar when he was awarded the Golden Calf a few months ago. He was addressing a couple of right wing party leaders. This is the artistic reply to the political statement. Dchar represents the entire film industry and addresses politicians. The jury, in awarding him the prize, speaks on behalf of the profession. Other rules apply here than what politicians decide in meetings in which they discuss how to get rid of immigrants. Here there is no discussion about taxes, budget cuts, criminality. What is discussed here is Beauty and what counts is the actor’s talent, not the blood running through his veins.

Dchar is not an isolated case. Many other actors and filmmakers contribute to the glory of the Dutch film industry just as every immigrant contributes to the country’s wealth and economy. I could mention actors like Hakim Traidia (Dutch Algerian), Sabri Saad el Hamus (Dutch Egyptian). I could also mention filmmakers such as the Dutch Peruvian Heddy Honigman, Hani Abou Assaad of Palestinian origin, Mohamed Al-Darraji originally from Irak and the Algerian born Karim Traidia. In addition I could mention many names of similar talents in France, Germany, England and other European countries: Fatih Akin, Abdellatif Kechiche, Rabah Ameur-Zaimech, Mahamet-Saleh Haroun,… Are these people symbols of a failed integration? Then when would we say that integration has succeeded? How many talented filmmakers do we need to be able to say that immigration has contributed to enrich the European film galaxy? If a couple of really creative artists can emerge from an immigrant community of two million, that means that there are dozens of others who are not very good or who didn’t get their chance to emerge. And how many brilliant filmmakers do we have in an autochthonous community of 17 million? Not quite as many, as genius, as everyone knows, is rare by definition.

Since 2011 cultural sectors have been suffering from budget cuts because of the economic crisis. At the same time, European governments have started to seriously discuss new immigration regulations in order to limit immigration as much as possible. This is happening within the framework of a new general social policy. When the American president Barack Obama had to take a step back in his social health care plan, cuts in the health sector were the topic in a heated debate about subsidies for the disabled and the budget for the cultural sectors had to be halved. At the same time new measures are being taken to reduce the number of immigrants, including the asylum seekers, to a minimum.

In a nutshell, the responsibility for the economic crisis is put on the shoulders of artists, migrants and other minorities and underprivileged members of society. They are the ones paying the price for the economic crisis when they were never the ones who profited from the economic wealth in the first place. Artists and immigrants share the position of Subaltern, the postcolonial philosopher Homi Bhabha would say. They are never considered part of the hegemonic power, even though it needs and uses them. Hence they are always forced to resist it. That is why the consecration of an artist of foreign origin is a double subaltern claim: as an immigrant and as an artist.

If Jean Paul Sartre used to call for the proletariat of the whole world to unite- the workers of the North and peasants of the South-, it is time now perhaps for a new kind of unity: whatever and whoever is against those who have hegemonic power. Emigrants and artists then join another form of resistance which we saw at the end of 2011, that of occupy. It seems that there is a form of consciousness which is developing within an increasingly broadening counter-hegemonic community. We are at a new turning point in history.  The subaltern social groups according to Bhabha  used to be the oppressed minority. The neoliberal globalisation has produced such a strong growing inequality that this group is becoming bigger and bigger. The power is no longer in the hands of the democratic majority, but in the hands of minor groups commanding the world’s finances.

´Artists and immigrants share the position of Subaltern, the postcolonial philosopher Homi Bhabha would say. They are never considered part of the hegemonic power, even though it needs and uses them.´

Many traditional concepts are no longer relevant. The idea that in a democracy the majority has the power, cannot supersede the slogan of the occupy movement (1%=/=99%). The world is run by a very small number of people who are among the richest of the world. 99% is becoming increasingly poorer because they are paying the price for the wealth of the 1%. The oppression has never been more synonym with marginalizing the minority, which is what Gramsci  means by the concept of “Subalternity”, but in our time it means economic discrimination of the majority for the benefit of the very small but very powerful and hegemonic minority.

What we witness in the Arab Spring, in the Occupy movement or in any other signs of resistance against the mysterious powers running the world and deciding its mumbo-jumbo, dixit J.P. Sartre, is a certain “subaltern awareness”. People don’t want to be exploited anymore, nor excluded from the wealth or the power. The problem is however, the division. As long as subalterns are divided in North/South, autochthon/immigrant and any other dichotomies – it will never be a real awareness. Some of the dissatisfied people are not aiming to destroy the hegemonic power but to “have a slice of the pie”. Their claim has, until now, been made within the hegemonic discourse and hence has never been subversive enough to achieve a rigorous break with an insane relationship between social groups built on boundaries, limits and antagonisms.

This was what Johan van der Keuken was saying from 1980 onward (also already present in his earlier films from the 60s). He used to believe in sharing the world generously for the benefit of everyone. His heroes were always the Wretches of the earth, Franz Fanon would say. Except that for Van der Keuken this category is broader than the colonised people in Fanon’s text:  a blind child, emigrants, workers, the unemployed, …  these are the kind of wretches in his cinema. Even in his work as a filmmaker his philosophy was to give back and share. This is perhaps the lesson some politicians will finally begin to understand when they look a beyond the numbers and the overly economical considerations. Leftist parties are regaining confidence because the people have started to see how politics can divert very far from its human basis in the name of budget cuts, whilst ignoring the essence of human life.

I read the news with what Johan van der Keuken used to believe and say in mind and I can’t stop thinking that, somehow, art can help politics in finding the right path: So you try – says Johan van der Keuken to his son learning about cinema, but it is as if he is talking to a politician– to get very close to people. Not just the work, the vulnerability too, … But you can also give back, I believe, as a film maker, in the way we film. Not as a story, not as a pearl that you admire from the outside, which can also be beautiful, of course. But we have to go in there, physically be there with our cameras and we have to show that as well. That seems to me a fundamental kind of sincerity. That is the practice of filming. I have always liked exploring the boundaries of it.”
So the genius spoke.

[1] Johan van der Keuken, The Complete Collection (2006) by Total Film.

[2] Bhabha, Homi K. “The Voice of the Dom,” [Subaltern Studies IX The Present History of West Bengal] TLS, The Times Literary Supplement no. 4923 (8 August 1997)

[3] Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973.

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