Six filmmakers on the topic of reconstruction

For the programme This Is Where Reconstruction Starts, IFFR asked six young cinematographers to make a short film about restoration, the relationship between the individual and their surroundings, city and society. This resulted in six poignant reflections on solitude, dependence, and the power of the individual.

By Nausicaa Marbe

Rotterdam is not. The streets are there, the port and the skyline. The Maas gently flows underneath the bridges. The train station is bearing the correct name as well - there's no mistake. But the images are meaningless, they are but a backdrop that does not evoke any memories, nor foretell the future. It is impossible to relate to this city, visually nor emotionally. The leading character in Aboozar Amini’s film Where Is Kurdistan? could just as well be on Mars. Complete alienation. From the moment he thinks he recognizes a song from his younger days in Afghanistan - while listening to music made by a Kurdish tambour player - he starts to lose the plot. "That song is my soul, my heart, my life!", he shouts at the astonished musician. And from that time onward, the Afghan Rotterdam resident loses his grip on reality. His surroundings become fluid, clashing with the soundtrack of homesickness in his head. Occasionally, the melody is drowned out by loud noise. Church bells, a foghorn, a dock worker cursing ... But there is nothing that can bring the boy back to reality, back to the present. He is swirling through the streets like in a feverish dream. Even the reconstruction of his memory has failed.

Reconstruction of self-esteem

Where is Kurdistan? might be the most pessimist film in the This Is Where Reconstruction Starts series, which is part of Rotterdam viert de stad! Aboozar Amini presents us with the worst case scenario of a complete identity crisis. His reconstruction is a deconstruction; an emotional meltdown. Perhaps some migrants need to hit the bottom - and experience the most crippling homesickness - before they are able to attach some emotional value to their new place of residence.

Not all filmmakers explore the nether regions of our emotions, but reconstruction never seems to be an easy process. Guido van Driel's Mosaic focuses on an Algerian tiler that is working on a job in the house of a modern day slave driver. For him, reconstruction starts after an accident at the site. The skilled and experienced tiler is treated like a cowboy operator. He himself oversees two workers from Mali who execute their orders almost mechanically, and without complaints. But once they've left the work site, they wear three-piece suits and hats. An example of how the foundation for reconstruction can be laid: with a clear sign of self-respect in an environment that could not care less.

But this is not enough for the tiler to find himself; he is nourished by the memories of the beautiful mosaics he once produced, of his craftsmanship and the beauty it spawned. Work performed with love and attention, that stands in sharp contrast with a rush job in some jerk's house. As an undeclared worker in the Netherlands, his skills are of no use to him. But there is one thing he won't allow to happen: to be ruined by the inferior work. And that is how the reconstruction of his self-esteem starts.

Building autonomy

Two more films depict strangers arriving in the Netherlands. Gardeners, by Mira Formay, is a touching work. It centres on an albino boy travelling to the West, from what looks like Central Europe. Viewers will hold their breath while watching this teenager seeking shelter in the messy garden of a village house. He's waiting to see if the animals will be fed, so that he can grab some food. An older woman looks after him for a while. She takes him in, and arranges a ride across the border in her nephew's car. They have a skinhead as a travel companion. You suspect the worst to happen at any time, but the albino boy finally meets his fate in what could be a Dutch park. That is when the director intervenes. Literally - on film. Here, reconstruction is clearly an antipode of the menacing destruction by the other. Whatever the boy in that unfortunate body - which is the target of derision and hatred - wants or feels, his happiness depends on the willingness of others to see him as their equal.

Even if your move to another world seems all arranged, fate and the capriciousness of the people on whom you depend can mess things up. The father of teenager Hassan decides to bring his son from a Moroccan mountain village to the Netherlands at a later age. Yassine El Idrissi's Honey and Old Cheese starts when Hassan receives his visa for the Netherlands. He returns to his village, only to wait for his father to send him the plane ticket. Everyone in the community sympathises with him, they all know about living in the Netherlands, migrating, and seeking a better future. Except for Hassan. We see him become one with the rugged North African mountain scenery; the continuous panoramic view that dwarfs man and woman. This is where Hassan has waited his whole life for his father to decide. And then, the move is cancelled. It is impressive to see Hassan discover his own will, and think up a ruse to get to the Netherlands anyway. This is the start of the reconstruction of a life that used to know very little independence. The relationship with the father remains intact, but from now on the son decides for himself.

Dissecting a past

A Sunny Day, by Ying Liang, also focuses on the relationship between a father and his child. This is probably the most conciliatory film in this series. An elderly man living alone in a big Chinese city starts his day like any other, while the radio reports on imminent tensions during the Occupy demonstrations. Later on, when the relationship between the man and the only daughter that is willing to visit him changes, it emerges that this is not just any background noise. The daughter witnesses a conversation between her father and people from the nursing home where he would like to live. He is willing to open up about his loneliness to them. Instead of joining the protests, the daughter decides to see her father and warm up a can of soup for him. The conversation that follows changes their lives. The man's children were lonely in the past too, because he used to devote all of his time to his students. The dissection of a mutual past coincides with the reconstruction of the father-daughter relationship. But the reconstruction of the personal relationship is also supported by their shared social engagement. Individual and social reasons are subtly intertwined in this intimate family portrait.

Freedom, adventure, and sensuality

There are reasons besides misery for wanting to start afresh on the other side of the world. Two of the three characters in the philosophical This Is Not a Song of Hope by Daniel Aragão, have left Europe in the hope of finding freedom, adventure, and sensuality. They are tempted by the Brazilian city of Recife. This is also the place of residence of an artist that flaunts his seedy lifestyle. Reconstruction for this threesome seems more of a luxury problem for people that are able try to find themselves and their happiness in freedom, wealth, and security. But these free spirits too, turn out to be vulnerable, and overly dependent on their high expectations. Lethargy and self-destruction loom where reconstruction should be taking place. Under the hot Brazilian sun, with the faded glory of Recife as a backdrop, the wild and exotic life can come crashing down like a storm of confetti. Death and violence are lurking. Besides the poetic voice-over, the images - sometimes wild, sometimes tender, at times frozen - capture the uncertainty of fate and the looming threats in man himself very well.

Intensive care and dedication

With all directors, the method of filming determines the relationship between people and their surroundings. Gardeners is a silent movie in black and white, accompanied by piano music. In such a film, the distance to the suffering of the albino boy could well be symbolic for the viewer's distance to this movie. But it also refers to the first cumbersome days of the cinema. It is exactly this primitive cinematic language that adds weight to the boy's drama. Occasionally, there are scenes in colour; they show us encounters that are safe for the boy. In A Sunny Day, we see father and daughter in an almost empty apartment. This used to be the place where a mother and her four children were waiting for a father that would rarely come home. Now, the emptiness of the apartment emphasises the widower's loneliness. The landscape dominates the people in Honey and Old Cheese. When the camera zooms in, it is the process of making cheese and honey that we see up close. Old hands at work, old voices telling stories in the calm, melodious Moroccan language; the content voices of people that are rooted. The tiler in Mosaic is able to find himself thanks to the images on his mobile phone. For once, the display does not bring the alien outside world to a familiar environment. Instead, it brings the familiar man back to his alienated self. In Where is Kurdistan?, the disappearing act of the city of Rotterdam makes it possible to understand what it would be like to lose yourself, while in the final scene of Gardeners, the albino seems to blend into the bright colours of an overexposed garden. We hear the voice-over explain how gardens need intensive care and dedication. Just like people. Even when they're strong and independent, able to find themselves, learned to do what they like and keep their backs straight. All films in the Reconstruction programme are a testament to the value of (in)dependence. How difficult our relationships with others can be, just like living off illusions, homesickness, and dreaming in vain. But also how beautiful, formative, and cathartic this all can be.

Nausicaa Marbe (Bucharest, 1963) is a writer, journalist and columnist for De Telegraaf. 
The portraits of the filmmakers were made by Omar Larabi (1985), freelance film journalist. His writing is published in the Filmkrant, among others.


A Sunny Day

Ying Liang (Hong Kong, Netherlands)

Bridgeable generation gap

In a Hong Kong apartment building, To and his daughter are preparing their weekly lunch together. While the protests of the Occupy movement are raging, he discusses his pending move to a nursing home.

Filmmaker Ying Liang (When Night Falls) tells how Hong Kong is changing: "There are too many people and there's not enough space." Because of a lack of space, children are unwilling or unable to take in their parents. Ying emphasises the similarities between the old and the young generation. "Father and daughter are unable to express their ideas, while they are not that different." Their shared sympathy for the Occupy movement brings them closer together. "A movement like that ensures that we can retain our cultural past and work on the future together." 

Honey and Old Cheese

Yassine El Idrissi (Morocco, Netherlands)

Living in a completely different world

Seventeen year-old Hassan is preparing his move to Europe. The plan is to live with his father in the Netherlands.

Filmmaker Yassine El Idrissi (The Iranian Film), links his subject to the reconstruction of Rotterdam after the Second World War: "In a way, rebuilding your life is a kind of reconstruction. All those people that came to lend a hand, also had to build their own lives." After landing on Schiphol airport, Hassan's home-made cheese and honey are immediately confiscated. El Idrissi: "Actually, that is the Netherlands saying you can't bring along all elements of your culture, because this may prevent you from understanding all new things." The gap between the two cultures is reinforced by the images of Hassan's village in the Atlas mountains. "A completely different world. The contrast stresses the obstacles for Hassan to overcome, for him to live in the big city."


Guido van Driel (Netherlands)

Overqualified illegal worker

Farik is living in the Netherlands illegally, and starts his Dutch career as a tiler - at the bottom rung of the ladder. A dry comical story, narrated from the perspective of a skilled mosaic maker.

Filmmaker Guido van Driel (The Resurrection of a Bastard): "Immigrants bring a type of craftsmanship for which there is no demand in the Netherlands. Farik is overqualified for a tiler. I wondered what it would be like for a guy like that to be moonlighting in Dutch homes." Besides Farik, his two West-African assistants are also trying to build a life in the Netherlands. Van Driel found them in the former district council office in Amsterdam Nieuw-West, the temporary shelter for a group of illegal immigrants. "I figured: if this works, it will be more realistic than the faces I've seen at the casting agencies."


Mira Fornay (Hungary, Slovakia, Netherlands)

No maintenance plan for the garden

A young African asylum seeker finds temporary shelter with a Slovakian family. The result is an ironic silent movie about the European refugee crisis, and the lack of communication.

Filmmaker Mira Fornay (My Dog Killer) tells from Paris: "You need gardeners to maintain a garden. But the people that design the gardens, don't always think about the gardeners. That's the problem with immigrants and politicians: a lack of information." The refugee crisis inspired Fornay to make a silent movie. "I did not want to tell a cliché story about a Syrian arriving in Europe. I had seen the African albino, my leading character, in a film. Skinheads want to help him because he's white, while black people don't understand him. It's all about the European identity issue."

Where Is Kurdistan?

Aboozar Amini (Afghanistan, Netherlands)

A destroyed soul

Two young men, Dawood from Afghanistan and Berxwedane from Kurdistan, both derive their identity from Dambora music - but they can't agree about its origin.

As a teenager, filmmaker Aboozar Amini (KabulTehranKabul) migrated from Afghanistan to the Netherlands. He explains: "You can hear Dambora music from the Middle East to Central Asia. But both Dawood and Berxwedane argue that the roots of the music lie in their region." From this conflict emerges Amini's key message: geography and borders are irrelevant. Dawood is from Afghanistan, a country that no longer exists as such, while Berxwedane is from Kurdistan, a country that has never existed. "The city of Rotterdam is the third character in the film, with the new central station as the place of arrival or departure. Indeed, it is unclear to Dawood and Berxwedane whether they are coming or going."

This Is Not a Song of Hope

Daniel Aragão (Brazil, Netherlands)

The history of reconstruction

We follow a group of twenty-somethings that are partying, making music, and contemplating life in the Brazilian town of Recife. Among them is Dutch architect Chris, who has a unique outlook on Brazilian society.

Filmmaker Daniel Aragão (I Swear I’ll Leave This Town): "The white middle class in Brazil is privileged, but Chris does not exercise her prerogative." As an outsider, she is not bound by unwritten rules. "It's easier for her to discern between right and wrong. She knows that certain actions from people around her will result in unjust violence." And of course there's a good reason to feature an architect in a film about reconstruction. "The colonial buildings in Recife are widely varied, because there has been a succession of colonial powers and styles. Chris recognizes the chronology in the different styles: the history of reconstruction."