Just another symptom of our all-American film culture quarantine: Master Dutch documentarian/free-form personal filmmaker Johan van der Keuken dies this January, and though movielovers the world over mourned, here he remains cineast non grata. A beloved festival favorite for 40 years and northern Europe’s preeminent nonfiction voice next to Joris Ivens, van der Keuken has an aesthetic that is fastidious only in its refusal to prioritize moviemaking over the textures and exigencies of ordinary existence. (“Film is not life,” he said. “It’s a second life.”) Otherwise, JVDK’s intimate glimpses into humankind are as organic as movies get—contemplative visual essays as genuine and impulsive as their maker.
In fact, he remains an auteur-theory ratification. For auteurists, significance didn’t lie so much with recognizing a director’s point of view or thematic passions as with the fabulous pleasure of sharing them. Van der Keuken was nothing but point of view, as likely to capture socioeconomic crisis as he was to film his nude, pregnant wife—sometimes in the same film. Documenting life-stuff from Sarajevo to Burkina Faso to his own living room, van der Keuken’s films hum with empathy, sardonic affection, patience, and wisdom. He started out as a celebrated photographer (publishing a collection of classmate portraits when he was still in high school), and chronicled what he loved, whether it was the poet-painter Lucebert (three short films, collected as Lucebert: Time and Farewell, 1962-94), jazz (Big Ben: Ben Webster in Europe, 1967), his family (the lovely Filmmaker’s Holiday, 1974) or Amsterdam itself (many films, including 1996’s nearly four-hour Amsterdam Global Village). Just as often, van der Keuken was motivated by poverty and injustice (The Palestinians, 1975; Flat Jungle, 1978), but after being slammed with cancer in 1985, his voyages tended to be even more digressive—the world seemed too large for any movie to settle on one thing for very long. The cancer returned years later, spurring van der Keuken and his wife, Noshka, to travel the globe one last time searching for cures, which resulted in his final film, The Long Holiday (2000), as embraceable an elegy as any filmmaker has ever made for himself. See just one film, and you’ll miss the guy.
A relatively incendiary piece of anthro-outrage, Nigel Noble’s The Charcoal People stations us on the edge of the Brazilian wilderness—the very edge, in fact, created by the eponymous migrant workers who earn their feeble livings by tearing down trees, burning them in kilns, and then selling the charcoal to steel factories. (The pig iron that results is used in manufacturing industries worldwide, particularly in car production.) The film splits its ire between the decimation of the landscape (the subindustry has already depleted a France-sized chunk of Brazilian forest, and the Amazon jungles are currently being leveled) and the dire life conditions of the workers themselves, most of whom are shockingly articulate.
Even at 70 minutes, The Charcoal People becomes repetitive and hopeless, at least as compared to Erik de Castro’s Senta a Pua!, a florid, flag-waving combat ode (complete with animated maps and archival footage) to the Brazilian Air Force’s contribution to the Allied effort in Italy during WW II. Slicker even than your average History Channel gloss, the movie consists largely of cuddly septuagenarians spinning helplessly fascinating flyboy mission yarns (this was surely the only squadron to compose an opera out of a comrade’s rescue story). This heroic, self-congratulating Brazil contrasts starkly with the wasteland of Noble’s film, suggesting a double bill for all political persuasions.