Filmmaker pushes boundaries of cinema

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By Catherine Parsons 

A sheep is sold, transported and slaughtered. As the camera steadies on the blood dripping from its white fleshy neck, most people in the audience cringe. A few stare resolutely at the screen. 

The director stands at a small lectern to the left, smiling.

“Reality can become very hard to look at,” he says. “Nobody can deal with this image.”

Not even a faulty sound system with only one speaker working could detract from John van der Keuken’s vision of realty in fiction and a fictive realty.

Van der Keuken, a Dutch photographer and cinematographer, was the second-last guest in a Ryerson lecture series sponsored by Kodak.

He has made more than 50 films in the last four decades, works he says inhabit a “no man’s land between documentary and fiction.”

To cross this no man’s land he has travelled the world gathering seemingly incongruous images for his montages of life and death, pain and beauty.

Two women in Sarajevo sweep a tone-filled courtyard in preparation for a vegetable garden. Suddenly, shots are fired from an apartment above. The women crouch.


One woman turns to the camera and apologizes. Sorry, she ways. So, so sorry. They stand up an return to sweeping, the camera still rolling.

“What is the meaning of art,” van der Keuken asks. “In a situation where people get killed and maimed every day?”

It is this question that leads him to explore the contradictions in life: sense without senses, compassion without care, bring to heal a fractured rally that doesn’t want to be healed.

The end of a tuba meanders across the screen playing to crumbling shacks and well-kept mansions, dusty roads and sparkling water.

“I was asking for attention and affection from the unexplored corners of the world,” Van der Keuken says as a teenager looks at the camera and gives it in the finger.

Van der Keuken shrugs and smiles. “That’s the moment we never want to miss,” he says. “That moment when someone says ‘fuck you.'”

Although his work is an exploration of the space between fiction and realty, van der Keuken is grounded when it comes to his place in the world.

“Cinema is really like all the other arts,” he says. “Nothing and everything. We can stick any kind of idea to this nothingness audit becoming something.”




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