Johan van der Keuken


Johan van der Keuken (Netherlands) was a Dutch documentary filmmaker and photographer born in Amsterdam in 1938. Several years after being introduced to photography in his early teens by his grandfather, he was encouraged by prominent Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken to publish his first photo book, We are 17, in 1955. Van der Keuken published several more photo books during his lifetime, including Behind Glass (1957), Mortal Paris (1963), Adventures of an Eye (1987), Adventures of a Gaze (1998), and The Lucid Eye (2000), among others. His still photographic practice is complemented by a rich body of filmmaking, addressing a wide variety of subjects including borders, migration, travel, and cross-cultural dialogue; geopolitics and wealth inequality; jazz and abstract painting; beauty, representation, personhood, ability, and disability. During his more than 40-year career, van der Keuken produced over 55 documentaries, several of which won awards, including two Josef von Sternberg Prizes and the Grand Prix at both Brussels Film Festival and Visions du Réel. His work has been the subject of numerous retrospective screenings including at the Stedelijk Museum, Eye Filmmuseum, Cinémathèque Française, and Media City Film Festival. Since his death in 2001, van der Keuken’s archive has been maintained by his widow and collaborator Noshka van der Lely and her current husband, Willem van Zoetendaal. In 2019 the Nederlands Fotomuseum acquired Johan van der Keuken’s photographic archives. 


ONLINE SCREENING DATES: May 20 – June 10, 2021

FILMS IN THIS PROGRAM:  The Mask, 53 min, 1989 *Curated by Herb Shellenberger.  

The Mask, 55 min, 1989

Johan van der Keuken’s documentary The Mask is unique in its form as a double portrait, capturing both a particular moment in history while also focusing in on an individual person. That moment: June 1989, during the bicentennial celebrations in Paris of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Images from the military parades, multicultural concerts, and street corners are enmeshed with footage shot off of televisions, setting the background for the film’s main subject: Philippe, a 23-year-old man living in homeless shelters or otherwise sleeping rough. The nights are long out on the street and he can’t sleep: “Loneliness is hard, I’m walking through an endless desert.” He explains that it’s important for him to wear a mask — for example, to have nice clothes to make a good impression on those he meets. Between extended conversations with Philippe, observation of the social care structures around him, and the wide-angle view of France’s commemoration of their liberal democratic ideals, van der Keuken provides an unvarnished view of how these philosophical ideas play out in everyday reality for an individual citizen. – Herb Shellenberger

For me, the doubt about the Real of one’s film has two causes. First, a belief that the Real is not a given, that it has to be suggested between the images: images are nothing but fragments, traces, bits of evidence, of something that has remained elsewhere. Second, a process takes place in the spectator’s mind that consists of de-realizing these images from the Real to, paradoxically, prove their reality, or, on the contrary, their artificiality. Which is why, even though I refuse the distinction between documentary and fiction, I do not say that my films are “fiction films.” I’d rather say that they are artificial. Either the image is stolen from the “real world,” or it is artificially constructed, “staged,” and that creates an energetic process that, eventually, produces fiction. The fictional space is always in the spectator’s mind, and, if that energetic process does not take place, the film simply dies. But it is very clear to me that what is at stake in documentary is a struggle with the form to reach a fictionalization of the image — through the filming process itself and its physical aspects, the editing, the rhythm, etc. – Johan van der Keuken

Curator’s note: My initial research into a presentation of Johan van der Keuken’s films was developed during my role as Guest Curator for the Film Programme of the 2020 European Media Art Festival in Osnabrück, Germany. This festival, and my accompanying series titled Face and Mask, was canceled due to Covid-19. I would like to acknowledge the support of EMAF and Katrin Mundt. Thank you to Noshka van der Lely for permission to screen the film. 

Stills, photographs, and artwork courtesy ©Estate of Johan van der Keuken.