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Looming Fire

Stories from the Dutch East Indies 1900-1940

EYE IJpromenade 1, 1031KT Amsterdam, The Netherlands
tel: +31(0)20 5891400

5 October to 1 December 2013 EYE : Looming Fire, the latest work by filmmaker and artist Péter Forgács. Based on EYE’s extensive collection of home movies, Forgács (Budapest, 1950) takes us through everyday life in the Netherlands East Indies at the height of the colonial period. Supported by quotes from original letters, the footage shows daily life as lived by Europeans in the colonial era in full glory: the etiquette, the almost forgotten traditions, family life, the colours and the scents. Thus Looming Fire is able to add an extra dimension to the historiography of the Netherlands East Indies. Forgács: “I put my films together like musical pieces. I make compositions on the basis of the material I’ve found. They are personal interpretations of history, not documentaries aiming at objectivity.”

People who leave their native soil are cut off from their past. But for the former inhabitants of the colonies, there is something else at play as well: the old places no longer exist. Although memories are kept alive, the accuracy of those memories can be called into question. The Netherlands East Indies, too, has become an imaginary country. The professional films produced there for trade, industry and the government were generally always biased. The amateur films made in the Netherlands East Indies, by contrast, show intimate family highlights, but also offer insight into everyday activities, the home, the landscape. EYE holds an extensive collection of these ‘eye witness reports’, which were made with the purpose of sending them home.

Looming Fire
Looming Fire is a multiple screen installation that offers an impression of the life led by the European elite and Indo people in colonial society, from the beginning of the previous century to the onset of the Second World War. Found footage filmmaker Péter Forgács drew on EYE’s rich home movie collection from the Netherlands East Indies, adapting the amateur footage and supplementing it with quotes from letters held by the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT). Visitors of the exhibition pass through seven spheres, shown on more than fifteen large screens with projections. Together they offer an extraordinary and varied picture of everyday life in the former colony.  Although we witness the happy moments of colonial life: birthdays, parties, family outings, a trip to a native village, shops, schools, the contact with servants; controversial issues are not shunned. Looming Fire sheds light on the complex structure of colonial society.  The work questions and investigates the concepts of colonialism, memory and migration.


created by Peter Forgacs
music János Másik
editor Zoltán Vida
historian, advisor Eveline Buchheim
expert Nico de Klerk
producer Cesar Messemaker

Looming Fire is a Lumen Film production made in coproduction with EYE. The installation was realized with the financial support of the Mondriaan Fund, VSB Fund, SNS REAAL Fund and the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund.

Peter Delpeut:

Looming Fire’s Contradictions

Opening lecture for the exhibition Looming Fire by Peter Forgàcs in Eye Filmmuseum.

It immediately starts with the images on the first screen of the exhibition. They are a readers digest of what has to come and they are meant as an overture. It is hard to get away from them. I can watch them for hours, and I am sure the most of you will agree on that. These are the kind of images that cast a spell on us. They feel close, and yet far away. They seem to be clear and perfectly understandable, and yet they are strange, enigmatic, mysterious. They are undeniable concrete, and yet as if coming from a dream.

What is this with these images? How can they hold all these contradictions, and still be so overwhelmingly lucid?

I tell you no secret when I say these are home movies. Movies shot by amateur filmmakers, within the boundaries of family life and meant for screenings within these boundaries. Watching them makes us voyeurs, as if we enter in the homes of people we don’t know. We enter a private space and like a burglar we touch things that are not ours. We are thieves.

Maybe you should keep this in mind when entering the exposition space after this opening ceremony. Looming Fire, the multi screen installation Peter Forgàcs made with home movies from the Dutch East Indies makes us into thieves, trespassers crossing the boundaries of private lives. Above every screen you should imagine a little sign with ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’. At least a certain reserve is requested.

And yet, why should we be reserved? Doesn’t these images make us feel at home? As if we know these houses, gardens, holiday outings already for a long time? Maybe we are a bit jealous about the ever shining sun, the exotic plants and trees, the attractive sea shore, but couldn’t these people be family, relatives, the uncle that went overseas? And doesn’t that allow us to enter these lives? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to visit our relatives?

With Looming Fire Peter Forgàcs at least opens the door for us, we don’t have to climb over the wall or smash a window to get in. Forgàcs is a specialist in opening private doors, a real gentleman thieve who gives us the idea the owners of the house are not annoyed with our trespassing. Moreover, he gives you the feeling these families invite you in, welcome you with pleasure and heart warming hospitality.

Up till the moment when this gentleman thieve changes his mood. Then he becomes the nasty party guest, who sets up the family members to each other, pokes into their secrets, making hints about the little creaks in the family relations, and making undercurrents of the emotional lives of all these happy family members suddenly apparent, not to say painfully visible.

See, this will be an afternoon of contradictions. Not at the least the contradictions the artist Peter Forgàcs brings in himself together.

He combines a far reaching compassion for the rituals of bourgeois family life with an excessive desire to reveal its hidden secrets, an unstoppable urge to open up the dust bins of this same family rituals.

Contradictions: I think it is best to keep this word in mind this afternoon. It is I think a good sign post to guide us through the work of Peter Forgàcs and most certainly through the exhibition Looming Fire, stories from the Dutch East Indies.

Let’s start with this one: why do we need an Hungarian artist to tell us stories about the Dutch East Indies?

Interesting question. Part of the answer is of course that Peter has a long going relationship with The Netherlands. There is this famous saying that ‘everything in Holland happens ten years later’. For once this doesn’t count for Peter Forgàcs. We can be proud in being very early in recognising his importance as an artist. One of this happy occasions in which people and institutions smoothly went around together.

Already in 1989 Peter won with his film The Bartos Family the main prize of the World Wide Video Festival in The Hague it was his first official

international recognition. Programmer of the East European section was Albert Wulfers, who had seen Peter’s first four films from the series Private Hungary in Budapest - it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, to quote the famous closing lines of Casablanca.

In film magazine Skrien Mieke Bernink wrote the first extensive article on Peter’s work outside Hungary. Albert also programmed for the Rotterdam Art Foundation in collaboration with Ingrid van Tol films of his Private Hungary series in De Unie. And as a programmer of the Filmmuseum I collaborated with Ingrid to share these programs, under the still beautiful series title Mind the Gap.

Meanwhile Cesar Messemaker with his production company Lumen Film stepped in and produced Domweg Gelukkig, co-directed by Peter ánd Albert. Also this collaboration with Cesar became a long standing friendship, Cesar being the producer of Looming Fire.

The Filmmuseum organised the first international retrospective of Peter’s work as early as 1993. A few years later the Vpro co-financed Maelstrom a Family Chronicle, Hans Maarten van den Brink, then program director, being responsible for that.

So you could say Peter is already for a long time one of the family, these are still household names and institutions in the Dutch film en television community.

But there is something more interesting concerning today’s opening. As early as 1993 Peter - visiting for his retrospective - mentioned he might be interested in making a film with home movies from the Dutch East Indies. Mind you, this is twenty years ago!

Time can be an enemy and I suspect that producer Cesar Messemaker and Peter Forgàcs must have felt this way in the past twenty years. But now with Looming Fire you could say that time has also been their friend.

In 1993 the collection home movies from the Dutch East Indies in the archive of the Filmmuseum was not particularly extensive. Besides this, the focus was still on all this more official materials that had to be preserved. It’s my guess that Peter’s request opened up the minds of the

museum’s staff members Mark Paul Meijer, Nico de Klerk and later Doreth Schootemeijer to be on the outlook for this kind of home movie materials. Unconsciously the admiration for Peter’s work directed the policy of the archive, as if they were collecting for the moment Peter could make his desired movie.

And now after twenty years it is possible to fill a complete exhibition hall with these home movies. And moreover, because of the High Definition video scanning we can see these images brighter and more brisk than ever. Believe me, there was no film projector in the whole of the Dutch East Indies or the entire world that could have shown the originals ever better and more beautiful.

But this of course in no answer to the question: do we need an Hungarian artist to tell us stories about the Dutch East Indies?

Not necessarily of course, but I see it as a very happy conjunction.

The Dutch writing and thinking about the history of the Dutch East Indies is infected with shame and guilt of the colonial rule. The colonial era had a very unhappy ending, starting with the Japanese occupation and after that with an ugly war for independence.

These circumstances make it very difficult for Dutch historians or artists to have an outsiders look. And this is exactly what these home movies need when we want them to speak to us in en unheard voice.

It is my impression that with Peter Forgàcs intervention it was possible to liberate these images from the nostalgia of the good old days, let’s say their tempo doeloe imago, ánd as well to liberate them from a political correct, anti colonial point of view.

Looming Fire exactly brings these home movies somewhere in between, on an uncertain foundation, with no black or white pointing, no clear cut answers to the questions they pose, as if we can see them freshly, as if new and untainted.

I am fully aware this is a dangerous claim.

But I think I can make it clear without falling back on Peter’s nationality.

First: it has to do with the contradictions that are hidden away in home movies.
Second: it has to do with the special way Peter Forgàcs reworks these contradictions.

And third: it has to do with a special extra of Looming Fire, namely the spatial surroundings in which they now will be shown.

Roughly speaking you could say that home movies show us the bourgeois rituals of happiness.

I say bourgeois or middle and upper class, because we have to realise that up till video replaced film stock making home movies was very expensive. It might also be a reason why home movies seem to be obsessed with happiness. Why spent money on grief and misfortune.

But this is only part of the explanation. Home movies are meant as showpieces. They are not just the expression of bourgeois happiness, moreover they express the ideology of bourgeois happiness. This is the ever ongoing hidden agenda of these happy images.

Home movies follow the cycle of life: birth, baptize ceremonies, birthday parties, children’s playgrounds, family outings and holidays, friendships, new love, engagements, marriage, to finally start the cycle again: proudly showing of with the newborn heir.

Home movies do not only document the rituals of bourgeois happiness, they are also a ritual in themselves. Filming and screening the movies make the filmmaker and his protagonists feel safe, as if they raise a wall to protect the family for all the dangers the world keeps in store for them: unexpected wars, political change, natural disasters, economical downfall, and not to forget: the gaze of the stranger.

You could say that when you have seen one home movie collection, you have seen them all. Although they are extremely personal and private, they are also universal and all follow the same rituals.

The strength of Peter Forgac’s work is that he has cracked this impression. With all his interventions he has made the more personal, more private you could say. Isn’t that a nice contradiction?

There is a beautiful saying by the Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff, it goes in Dutch: ‘Kijk maar, er staat niet wat er staat.’, meaning as much as ‘Look, it is not what it says,’

It characterises in a nutshell Peter’s strategy. Or, in his own words: ‘I love mistakes.’

Peter has a very sharp eye for the subconscious framing of his filmmakers. He reveals the hidden love interests, the proud husband that seeks every opportunity to film his beloved wife, he even traces the ones that are kept carefully out of the frame, but sneak in by mistake.

And, and this is of particular importance for Looming Fire, he has a very sharp eye for the chance meeting, the moment when the camera by coincidence meets the gaze of the passer-by.

In these moments we get glimpses of the other: not only the exotic other, but also of employees, just people in the streets, or other party goers in the club.

They reveal relations of hierarchy, relations of uneasiness, relations of fascination.

Moments of truth I would like to call them, as many of these passers-by look straight into the camera. Their wondering, shameful, bold, naughty or fearful eyes meet the gaze of the cameraman, and through the camera they now meet our eyes.

As onlookers to these images we take the point of view of the cameraman, we are forced to take his position. Our only way out is that we have to start to read these images, we are pushed to dissect what the gaze of the other might communicate.

Suddenly we are taken in by these images, we are part of them.

In his editing’s, slow motions, repetitions Peter Forgàcs makes us family members and outsiders at the same time. He forces us to evaluate our position, not only towards the passers-by but also towards the filmmaker, the person behind the camera.

And this position is never clear.

And this brings us I think to an important observation, that can’t be emphasized enough.

Looming Fire, as counts for all Peter’s other work, is no attempt in historiography, it is not a form of history writing. Looming Fire is a piece of art.

Although it is rooted in the past, to be exact it starts from home movies made between 1920 and 1940, and it can’t be denied that the choice for these dates is of great importance, also taking in account that the geography of the project is the Dutch East Indies, the whole project is not an historical documentary.

It completely lacks the didactics of these kind of documentaries in which archival footage (from home movie tot newsreel) mainly functions as an illustration of historical argumentation: history written as a chain of cause and effect, proved by images already explained by the speaking specialist.

Looming Fire is not aiming for this kind truth, but it aims at wonderment, amazement, uncertainness, uneasiness, unsolved riddles, in short the complexities of social behaviour.

Visiting Looming Fire yesterday I couldn’t get the famous quote by L.P. Hartley out of my mind.
It says: ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

We shouldn’t forget it is the opening sentence of a novel, The Go Between, and reveals the kind of true observations only artists can give

us. It might be an hint to take the subtitle of the Looming Fire installation rather literally: Stories from the Dutch East Indies. Stories.

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

This foreignness doesn’t count only for what we can see. It also counts for the letters we can hear in the soundscapes. They were collected by Eveline Buchheim, a historical anthropologist.

The letters add something new to the work of Peter Forgàcs. They pose also important questions.

The letters might seem to come from the same domain, the private lives of people. But where the home movies are more public than private, the letters seem to me extremely private, not only written away from the public eye, but also meant to be read away from the public eye.

The editing of the letters opposed to the images is not didactic or illustrative. Most letters are not coming from the same source as the movies, not even the same families. They are an autonomous layer, but they are closer to historical truth than the images. I don’t know exactly why this is. Bu as I said, art is not for answers but for questioning the things that go without saying, shake the obvious.

There is something magical when you will enter the exhibition. On the many screens the home movies unwind their mysterious stories. When you are taken in by one of the screens, the parallel stories still are there. You hardly can’t get them out of the corner of your eye. You experience a space, as if you have stepped into a time machine.

But there is also another miracle. Through the half blinded windows of the exhibition space you get a glimpse of the glittering water of the IJ, and you suspect that every moment a big white ship can sail in, as if the bay of Batavia is part of the installation.

I mean, bring your imagination, I would suggest, more than your historical handbooks, when visiting this exhibition.

And then, let’s say, my last contradiction. Of course this exhibition is also about history, not just about art. You will have noticed that I hardly did talk about the Dutch East Indies. This is not because I think the historical and geographical environment from which these home movies come are not important.

On the contrary, they are essential. But it is my view that you will bring them in yourself, they are so to say already in your personal backpack. And for each of us they are different.

The beautiful thing of art is the confrontation of our personal believes, our personal histories and our very personal preconceived notions with images and sounds that unnerves them, which make these shake on their foundations.

This is not something I have to learn you. Believe me, enter Looming Fire and it will happen.

Peter Delpeut 04-10-2013


created by Peter Forgacs
music János Másik
editor Zoltán Vida
historian, advisor Eveline Buchheim
expert Nico de Klerk
producer Cesar Messemaker

Looming Fire is a Lumen Film production made in coproduction with EYE. The installation was realized with the financial support of the Mondriaan Fund, VSB Fund, SNS REAAL Fund and the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund.
 _INST: Looming Fire