Marleen Jonkman on La Holandesa

With her intimate road movie La Holandesa, Marleen Jonkman deals with a subject that's often hushed away: the unfulfilled desire to have children. Still, protagonist Maud is often silent: “What looks good on paper, often becomes ugly and banal if you say it out loud.”

“I want to experience this to the fullest”, Marleen Jonkman laughs. It's no wonder: her feature debut was selected for the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, and will now have its international premiere in eighteen countries at once through the IFFR Live programme. “It's a mixed feeling, scary and exciting all at once. It's kind of funny, a red carpet premiere with a pack of photographers, quite an ego boost. But in the end I don't think I'm that important; I just want everyone to see the film.”

Her film La Holandesa (distributed internationally as Maud and Messi) revolves around forty-something Maud (Rifka Lodeizen). During a trip through South America with her husband Frank, she's forced to confront the fact that she will never have children. She runs away, no clear goal in mind, and starts a lonely trip north. Along the way she strikes up a friendship with a young boy nicknamed Messi, and as the Patagonian landscape changes the relationship between these two lost souls also deepens.

La Holandesa may be Jonkman’s first feature film, but she has already built up quite a resume of award-winning shorts and plenty of commercials since graduating from the Dutch Film Academy in 2005. Far from stunting her creative development, these commissioned works have helped her grow as a filmmaker, Jonkman says. “Because they're less important to me personally, it's easier to let go. There's pressure, but it's a kind of pressure I can deal with more easily. You'd have to be a very bad director to screw up a commercial, because you're working with very experienced crews. So those shoots taught me to trust my crew and let go. That creates space for the unexpected.”

  • Still: La Holandesa

  • Still: La Holandesa

Jonkman took full advantage of this space during the shoot for La Holandesa in Chile – though it took some time to get used to the local crew's methods. “They were less prepared than we're used to in the Netherlands, but they were much better at improvising in the moment. That made me nervous at first. The first few days, my DoP Jeroen de Bruin and I wasted a lot of time trying to get everyone to conform to our way of working. But once we were able to let go, the results were much more interesting. Sometimes things weren't arranged a day before shooting a scene, but the entire village was mobilized on the day itself and it became ten times what we'd thought of beforehand.”

Jonkman had had the chance to get used to this mentality during a trip through South America before the shoot. “When I read Daan Gielis's screenplay for the first time, I had never set foot on that continent. But I made a trip soon after that, on my own. I had never really hiked before and I was dreading it at first, but it turned out to be really good to be there on my own, sort of like Maud. To get to know the landscape and the culture, but also to feel the effect it has on you – the liberating feeling of traveling alone.”

This experience was not just important to Jonkman personally –it also gave her the confidence that her star would feel the same. “Rifka was kind of worried about the trip and the time she would have to spend away from her kids before we set out. But I knew she'd grow into it. You can see it happen in the film. Part of that is in the character, but it happens in her as well: as we travel north, she becomes softer. It does something to you, the changes in the landscape, the colours, the light. In those deserts, you can look all around and not see another human being. That kind of internal silence makes it easier to let go of old concepts.”

I don't think I'm that important; I just want everyone to see the film.” – Marleen Jonkman

It was not just the thought of shooting a film in Chile – “far outside my comfort zone” – that attracted Jonkman to the project. Far more important were the deep and complex character of Maud and the issue she's wrestling with: confronting the fact she will never have children. “It's something I've been struggling with for years, and which seems as a taboo. Nobody talks about it. I hate the fact that it becomes such an unavoidable issue as you grow older. It's unfair that women have to deal with this while men can postpone their decision indefinitely.”

In La Holandesa all conversations are postponed as well: Maud and Frank are unable to talk about their shared grief. “The original screenplay had more dialogue – fights and discussions”, Jonkman says. “But what looks good on paper, often becomes ugly and banal if you say it out loud. So we kept stripping it down – during rehearsals, during the shoot and in the editing process. Rifka was very strict about it. That may make it a difficult film for some viewers; if you're not able to put something of your own experience into it, you probably won't care that much. But I like films that leave room for reflection, that make you work a little harder.”

Jonkman's own perspective on the issues changed through making the film, as well. “The other day I read the director's statement again I wrote three years ago, where I said that the film would be a success if it could give people in this situation a new perspective. Now I know that the pain is never going to go away. If the film can give those people some comfort as they process this grief, some idea that they're not alone, that's already a lot. Initially, the film had more closure, a more optimistic ending. But as we were making it, I started to see that this journey isn't the end for Maud – it's just a first step in her process.”

Photo in header: Interview: Joost Broeren-Huitenga