A few hundred years ago, the Dutch ruled large portions of the globe through their East and West India companies. Today that colonial empire is largely forgotten, but the traces of it fascinated Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma, an American-Dutch filmmaking team. The pair spent two years traveling to seven countries formerly controlled by the Dutch to document the remnants of colonialism and came away with enough stories for a half-dozen films. They found the descendants of Indonesian slaves in Cape Town, South Africa, who sang loves songs in old Dutch dialect; war re-enactors in Java who dressed in Dutch Waffen SS uniforms; and the great-grandchildren of escaped Ghanaian slaves digging for gold in the jungles of Suriname (that last story was adapted into an article for VICE.com two months ago). Their completed project is called Empire, and it’s what Kel and Eline are calling an “exploded feature film”—instead of presenting the film as one continuous narrative, it’s broken up into separate sections meant to be experienced on screens distributed throughout a space so viewers can wander from story to story, country to country. Portions of Empire have been shown in museums and galleries all over the world, but the entire project will premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November. I took the opportunity to call the duo up and talk about their work and travels.
VICE: What was the genesis of this idea?
Kel O’Neill: We were doing a residency in Sri Lanka, and while we were there we found this old folks home for Burgher ladies. They were women who had a mixed European-Asian background, and there was something about them that was really, really compelling. They speak only English, they live in this mansion that’s on the edge of Colombo, and they don’t interact with the rest of society. It’s like a birdcage for older Burgher women. They were just so out of step with the rest of society, and it felt like they came from this time that was long gone—they were representing colonialism, but in the present day.
Eline Jongsma: When we were visiting and filming these ladies they reminded me a lot of my grandmother, who was born in colonial Indonesia. For me it was like meeting relatives, and that was very strange because I didn’t expect to understand or recognize the hybrid culture of a country that I’d never visited. It was like a house full of grandmothers for me—the way they talk, the way they dress, the way they compose themselves. 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. It was very fascinating.
Could you tell me about the Welcome Village in Sri Lanka? The image of an older white man in that mechanized wheelchair being worshiped by some of those elderly people in that village is, uh…
Eline: He’s sort of like a good-natured Colonel Kurtz. It’s his own privately owned village. My dad did some fundraising for him, so when we were planning to go to Sri Lanka my dad told me about this place. Obviously, we had to visit.
Kel: It seems like a perfect counterbalance to the Burghers. The stories have a stronger message together than they do separately. They’re interwoven narratives of post-colonial guilt, I guess you could say. I think one of the reasons he does what he does, or did what he did—because he actually just died recently—was he had a sense of guilt. But I think it’s mixed with the sense that he should take up the White Man’s Burden. But he’s a very, very nice man. The circumstances that he crafted for himself are…
Kel: Unique. [laughs] That’s a good way to put it.
How many countries did you visit for this project?
Kel: We started in Sri Lanka and then from Sri Lanka went to Indonesia. From Indonesia we went to India. From India we went to South Africa, from South Africa we went to the Netherlands and then to Brazil, later Suriname, and finally Ghana.
Did you sort of see common threads as you went through all these countries? Were there like things that you sort of came to recognize by the time you were through with the trip?
Kel: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the hybrid cultures that arose are striking similar in all the places. Like the last shooting we did was in Ghana and it was with a bunch of aging Masons. Inside the houses of these Masons you would feel the same feelings that you felt with the Burghers, or the same feeling that you would feel in Indonesia with these mixed-raced Dutch-Indonesians. The project isn’t entirely about that, but it is about this post-colonial space that’s scattered all over the world. You could say that Suriname and Ghana and Sri Lanka couldn’t be more distant from each other, but in a way, they are closer—at least those pockets of post-colonial space—than North Carolina and Massachusetts.
Eline: What the Dutch did at a certain point in the 17th century was they divided up the world into two parts, and the division sort of ran through Africa—with South Africa on the East side and Ghana on the West side. The Dutch East Trading Company revolved around spices, fabrics, gold, that kind of stuff. The West Trading Company revolved around the trade of human beings. We did the countries of the East first and then the West. I think in the East we could be a little bit more playful. The West, which we just finished this year, was a little heavier. On the West side, you also have a very clear genetic link between people because of slavery. That kind of blew our minds.
Kel: When you think about how many people of West African descent there are in the world and the economic mechanism that put that in place, it’s overwhelming. I think that’s one of the reasons that, if we can avoid thinking about slavery, we do. Because it’s just fucking shocking to think about the trading of human beings. The scale is so grotesque. If you look at a place like Suriname, it’s basically a slave colony. The Dutch used it at as a plantation state and they started funneling in slaves, and once slavery was illegal they stopped with the West African trade and started bringing in people from India and Indonesia.
Eline: If you visit Ghana nowadays and you sort of get inside that material, it’s very hard to mentally go [back to that time] when the traders were building forts and trading for people and ivory. They thought that that was a good idea. That is really kind of amazing.
Do you think you better understand the colonial mindset now?
Kel: Well, that has to be parsed out a little bit because the colonial mindset, as we understand it traditionally, has a lot of parts. Like from the American perspective, we are talking about the British mindset—they had this layer of do-goodery thrown in there that the Dutch didn’t really have. The Dutch were operating entirely from an economic standpoint. It was all about exploiting these places, their resources, and they made no bones about it. The Dutch East India Company was the first multinational corporation that issued public stock. They functioned very much like a modern corporation does, so the moral element, the ethical element kind of goes out the window. When traders put their boots on the ground and started colonies, I think that they were mostly thinking about stuff like, “When do I get laid.”
That’s something that really hasn’t changed. The neo-colonialists who are drilling for oil in the third world probably aren’t troubling themselves over morality.
Kel: One of the things that I had to constantly bear in mind, and I can only speak for myself on this, is that there’s a clear divide between public life and what you do for your job and your private life. And it’s easier for me to think about the motives of these colonialists if I think about what they were they like when they got home after a long day of slave trading, you know. [laughs] You know, put on the candle, open up the Bible, and give it a good read.
Eline: I think that there are two sort of basis for European colonialism. The first is obviously pure trade. But at a certain point that transitioned into a sort of British-style colonialism, where you put the head of your state at the head of the country, where you enforce laws, where you appoint governors—you put your moral stamp on a place. I feel like that got the Europeans in trouble. I think that the trading really didn’t get them in trouble so much.
Kel: You mean in the court of public opinion?
Eline: Yeah. For example, in Indonesia, which was the Dutch’s biggest colony, they began to believe that they could control the people and teach them things, teach them how to be civilized. That mindset of teaching people how to be civilized, how to live, how to have democracy—teaching other people values—I think that actually is more alive than ever. Can I be very honest?
Kel: Yes, please.
Eline: I think that this project showed us that people don’t want democracy—they just want an iPhone.
Jesus, I don’t know if that’s depressing or not.
Kel: It’s weird, people really want technology and they want consumable goods. And you got to hand it to the Chinese because they are really giving it to everybody right now. You can buy Chinese plastic shit everywhere in the world. It’s like the one common denominator. They actually say in Indonesia, if you buy a shirt at the market, it smells like China.
If you’re in Amsterdam and want to check out the Empire world premiere, the video installation will be on view daily from 9 AM to 11 PM at the Brakke Grond during the IDFA, November 15 to 25.
Find photos, essays, press links and more from the Empire project at:
Watch short excerpts from the work at: