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Directors in Focus
Living with Your Eyes: The World According to Johan van der Keuken

Lucid, complex, and exquisitely framed aural and visual compositions, Johan van der Keuken’s documentaries are grounded in a persistent curiosity about the ever-changing world and its inhabitants. Throughout his career, van der Keuken sought forms sufficient to convey his sense of wonder and his personal urge to communicate a global yet intimate perspective. In more than fifty films made over the past four decades, JVDK (as he was affectionately called by his many friends and fans) successfully disregarded preconceptions about barriers between art forms and about artificial subdivisions between fiction and documentary filmmaking. His cinematic practice included “painting with sound,” rehearsing his “characters,” rearranging shots, looking for “the moment where the photographic image moves,” and otherwise structuring his films on techniques adapted from jazz improvisation. His investigations of the social and political affairs of the world—and their effects on individuals, groups, and the culture at large—constitute fluid works of great beauty, even when deciphering such subjects as the global economy. His lifelong fascination with seeing the world through the lens produced an astonishing body of work.

This retrospective is offered as a memorial tribute to the artist, who passed away this January. We are grateful to Jytte Jensen, Associate Curator, Department of Film and Video at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, who organized the full retrospective, “Through the Lens Clearly.”


June 15 (Friday) 7 pm
June 17 (Sunday) 8:30 pm

The Eye Above the Well (Het Oog Boven de Put)

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 1988, 16mm, color, 94 min.

Well explores India’s spiritual and economic condition, moving from the city to the countryside in the region of Kerala as it focuses on the essence of that civilization. Captured without commentary by his gliding camera are a cacophony of distinctly nonwestern sights and sounds: the bustling city streets, the serene landscapes of the surrounding countryside, a family preparing for dinner, an elderly actor performing his mythological drama, a modest country moneylender traveling from village to village, young girls at their singing lessons. What emerges from these encounters is not only a highly evocative sense of lived experience but a poetic vision perhaps best captured by what Cahiers du cinéma called “the aesthetic of diversity.”

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June 15 (Friday) 9 pm

Last Words: My Sister Yoka

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 1998, 16mm, color, 52 min.
Dutch with English subtitles

Coming almost full circle to the source of his earliest inspiration, van der Keuken created in Last Words a tribute to his older sister, a subject of his very first artwork, the photographic study We Are 17. Yoka is seen in conversation the week before she died of cancer and then is resurrected by a timeline of photographs that have the force of working against her fatal illness. For the filmmaker this was more than just a portrait of Yoka, who was a practicing psychoanalyst: it represented for them both his sister’s “final project.” 

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Screens with Last Words: My sister Yoka (see above)

Lucebert: Time and Farewell (Lucebert: tijd en afscheid)

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 1994, 35mm, b/w & color, 52 min. 
Dutch with English subtitles

This work is a triptych of three van der Keuken portraits on the influential Dutch poet and painter Lucebert (1924–1994), who was a member of the International Cobra Movement and a mentor to the filmmaker during his early years in Paris.


June 16 (Saturday) 7 pm
June 20 (Wednesday), 7 pm

Amsterdam Global Village

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 1996, 16mm, color, 228 min.
Dutch with English subtitles

A highly original take on the city-symphony genre, this vibrant work is a meditation on everyday life in Amsterdam as a microcosm of the contemporary, postcolonial world. Encountering a Moroccan moped courier, a businessman from Chechnya, and a Bolivian immigrant with a newborn baby, the filmmaker follows their stories, always circling back to Amsterdam as the city that unites the different impulses and people. A truly magnificent patchwork of very personal tales, the film is also a penetrating and loving portrait of Amsterdam in the 1990s.

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June 17 (Sunday) 7 pm 

The White Castle (Het Witt Kasteel)

The Netherlands 1973, 16mm, color, 78 min.
Dutch with English subtitles

Part of van der Keuken’s North/South series, The White Castle focuses on the impact of the West on the underclass: on the concrete realities of their daily life and on the way their existence is isolated and frustrated. Interweaving images of the Spanish tourist mecca of Formentara, a community center in Columbus, Ohio, and factories in the Netherlands, the film vividly illustrates the fragmented, alienated lives that the market economy produces and chillingly portrays what van der Keuken saw as “a conveyor belt [that] runs across the world.”

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May 15 (Tuesday) 7 pm

The Long Holiday (De grote vakantie)

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 2000, 35mm, color, 142 min.
Dutch, Nepalese, and Bhutanese with 
English subtitles

This deeply personal and moving film begins with the filmmaker learning he has prostate cancer and only a few years to live. It ends with the hopeful prospect of reprieve, thanks to an alternative therapy discovered in New York. In the interim, experimenting with different Eastern and Western approaches to his illness, van der Keuken and his wife Noshka do what they have always done: travel and film. They return to locales from earlier works while continuing to track the pulse of life—amongst children in a village in Burkina Faso and slum dwellers in Rio de Janeiro—and in the process create some of the most compelling images of a long career. 

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June 23 (Saturday) 7 pm

To Sang Fotostudio

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 1997, 16mm, color, 32 min.
Dutch with English subtitles

Many nationalities are represented in the street of Amsterdam where a Chinese-born photographer operates his photo studio. Like van der Keuken, To Sang works with his wife in creating his portraits of neighbors and customers. But his large-scale, painterly portraits provide a striking contrast to the aesthetic sensibility of the artist behind the camera, who films the Sangs’ artistic process.

 

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Screens with To Sang Fotostudio (see above)

Living with Your Eyes (Leven Met Je Ogen)

Directed by Ramón Gieling
The Netherlands 1997, 16mm, color, 53 min.
Dutch with English subtitles

This revealing portrait of Johan van der Keuken was made during the filming of To Sang Fotostudio. Director Gieling turns the tables (and the cameras) on one-man film band JVDK and his wife and sound operator, Noshka van der Lely. We are privy to van der Keuken’s singular journey through the “no-man’s land between reality and fiction” as he coaches his “actors” to achieve some sense of their unmediated naturalness, films retakes to achieve the striking compositions characteristic of his work, and carefully assembles the resulting footage, with an editor, into a finished film. Gieling fleshes out this case study with excerpts from earlier films to complete this enlightening encounter with an artist who devoted a lifetime to living with his eyes.

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June 19 (Tuesday) 7 pm

I Love $

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 1986, 16mm, color, 145 min.
Dutch with English subtitles

This provocative film moves through the financial centers of the world, exploring the attitudes of those on the top and bottom of the social and economic pyramid. Interviews with gold speculators, bankers, and investors are intercut with journeys into the lives of people on the margins: Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York, a young family in Hong Kong, illegal immigrants in Geneva. The result is an unabashed portrait of “how people survive and how the money flows: those who have it and those who don’t.”

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