In their documentary installation piece “Empire: The unintended consequences of colonialism,” filmmaker team Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill seek out the residue of centuries of Dutch imperialist projects, highlighting what they have referred to as the “humanity” in colonization. The project took Jongsma and O’Neill four years to complete, and sent them to ten countries worldwide. The result, which has its US premiere at the New York Film Festival this weekend, is an interactive audiovisual experience. Audience members will move through the stories–just as the Dutch moved through their empire, perhaps–piecing together fragments and identifying threads as they go along.
While I am yet to experience the project in full, I’ve seen at least three of the twelve films (“India,” “South Africa,” “Indonesia”) that will feature in the Lincoln Center installation. In these pieces, I was treated to the juxtaposition of a Tamil granite factory exporting tombstones to the Netherlands, with a project to preserve the graves of Dutch traders in Gujarat. This was followed by perspectives on race and purity in Orania (video still above), contrasted with ideas about hybridity and origins held by Cape Malay choir members. Finally, I watched Nazi war reenactors in West Java, alongside a revived Jewish community in Northern Sulawesi.
I watched these films once, and again in a different order. I viewed them a third time, in another setting. Each time I came away with a gnawing sense of ambivalence, and many questions. Sure, these are intriguing snapshots of “obscure and weird” situations in post-colonial contexts. But are these stories really connected? And are they simply consequences of colonialism? And, for that matter, what exactly is an “unintended consequence” of colonialism?
As I understand, part of the point of the project is to give audience members fragments, with which they can then connect the dots, ask questions and find an underlying thread. Being a diligent audience member, I tried–I really did. As I watched and reflected, it became increasingly apparent to me that the underlying glue binding these stories was a subtle colonial nostalgia. The characters in the films engaged in it to varying degrees, and the project seems to be based on it.
This colonial nostalgia has serious implications for how Empire’s post-colonial story is told, and the way hybridity and cosmopolitanism are envisioned in the project. With regards to the former, as O’Neill explained in a recent interview, Empire is “about this post-colonial space that’s scattered all over the world.”
More precisely, and rendered visually in the installation (see map here) it is a post-colonial space where the Netherlands is “The Cradle,” and the colonies and former trading centers are sites of “Legacy,” “Migrants” and the “Periphery.” (According to the installation map, the coverage of the Netherlands features two films shot at Schiphol Airport.) In this centre/periphery framework, culture emanates from Europe and out to the rest of the world. It is not a matter of mutual-influence, but uni-directionality.
Having not seen the entire installation, perhaps I’m jumping the gun here. However, there seems to be a gaping hole where reflexivity should be. In the search for traces of colonial influence far and wide, did Jongsma and O’Neill think about the ways in which Suriname, Indonesia or Sri Lanka left their imprint on the Netherlands? Can the post-colonial space be one of multiple cradles?
Speaking about the kind of culture the pair encountered in making Empire, Jongsma recently stated:
We realized there is this sort of global post-colonial culture of people who wouldn’t exist without the help of European—in this case Dutch—traders and colonists, and their decisions that they made in the past.
Again, the sway of Dutch authority in creating this weird and wonderful post-colonial space and way of being is paramount. Of course, to deny the role of colonization in the formation of the particular hybrid identities and cultural remnants portrayed in Empire would be misguided. However, we should be careful not to assume that similarly complex stories of movement, difference and cultural sharing did not exist prior to the presence of 17th century European imperialism. Nor should we think that cosmopolitanism is a gift of European exploration and colonization. As Trans-Saharan, Indian Ocean and other fields of connected history have shown, cultural hybridity, mobility and dislocation have characterized the lives of communities and individuals in diverse regions for hundreds of years. The colonial factor adds but another layer to existing entanglements, bringing with it further complications and its own quirks.
While preliminarily weary of the underlying notions of post-coloniality and hybridity in the overall project, I was also taken by Jongsma and O’Neill’s storytelling approach. From the three films I watched, it is clear that Jongsma and O’Neill have found some anecdotal gems, recovering both intimate stories of identity, change and struggle, and those of everyday life, entertainment and personal quirks. Each fragment is multilayered and could easily compel an audience to dig deeper, to look further into the histories surrounding these case studies. After all, why are Indonesian men in their mid-20s running around forests in military gear, shouting at each other in German? And do some Afrikaners really see the Dutch as South African?
Are these stories connected, beyond the mere fact that the Dutch happened to be in those particular regions several centuries ago? I remain to be convinced. Nevertheless, Empire takes an ambitious step in moving towards the telling of personal stories of difference and hybridity, and placing them in a global context.