Nascent or Drowsy? Dutch Newsreels Made in Indonesia between 1947–1950
Gerda Jansen Hendriks
(NTR Dutch Public Television)
Can films produced within a colonial context have any significant meaning for nations now? And whose legacy do they represent? This paper tries to find an answer and a way forward for a specific set of films, namely, Dutch newsreels made in Indonesia between 1947 and 1950. During this period, Indonesians thought of themselves as being an independent nation, while most of the Dutch still thought the territory was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. As the Netherlands did not accept the proclamation of independence by the Republic of Indonesia, a colonial war ensued, with the Dutch giving in at the end of 1949 by transferring sovereignty.
Between the end of 1947 and the beginning of 1950, more than 150 newsreels about events in Indonesia were made by the Gouvernements Filmbedrijf Multifilm Batavia. As the name indicates, this was a division of the Dutch Government Information Service. For the outside world though, the institute operated as an independent company and used only the second part of its name, Multifilm Batavia. The company ran a large, well-equipped film studio in one of the suburbs of Jakarta, Meester Cornelis. Besides newsreels, titled Wordende Wereld in Dutch, a whole range of other films were produced, including movies for an Indonesian audience.
What do these newsreels tell us about a very important period in the history of Indonesia? One judgement comes from an Indonesian official, Wim Latumeten, who attended the Dutch-Indonesian Round Table Conference in The Hague in the autumn of 1949. His view was quoted in a report for the government (2 Feb. 1950, Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst [RVD] archive, inv.nr. 3533) concerning the continuation of Wordende Wereld. I use it as the main title of this paper: Nascent or Drowsy? Latumeten meant this as a rhetorical question. For him the newsreels did not represent a nascent world, as their Dutch title Wordende Wereld suggests. No, they reflect a bygone world, a world of backwardness and lack of modernity. So was the Indonesian official right? This paper discusses the value of these newsreels, most of which are held by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.
“Wordende wereld,” literally meaning nascent world, was what the Dutch producer of Multifilm Batavia, Mannus Franken, sincerely believed in. With the newsreel he wanted to show how the Dutch East Indies were developing from a colony into an independent nation. There was one “detail,” however, that he chose to neglect: for a lot of Indonesians in 1947, the independent nation was already there. To have some idea of the kinds of reports in Wordende Wereld, take a look at a story typical of newsreels all over the world at the end of the 1940s: the opening of a new road.
Wordende Wereld newsreel 19 depicting the opening of a new road—the last segment of the report.
There are some remarkable inconsistencies in this newsreel. The voice-over tells us that the new road was an initiative of the local people. And sure enough, we see them having a party, with traditional music and dances in colorful costumes. The voice-over continues, stating that the people are very happy because this new road will free them from the threats of terrorists—this last statement being the Dutch expression for Indonesian independence fighters. One then wonders if the initiative really came from the local people at all. Moreover, you can see the actual, official opening is an all-white affair, with presumably the wife of the Dutch administrator who cuts the ribbon. In the movie theater, newsreels were shown under the heading of Multifilm Batavia. Multifilm was a well-known film company in the Netherlands, and before World War II, Multifilm Batavia was their branch in the colony. After 1945, Multifilm Batavia became a part of the film studio of the Dutch Government Information Service. Everyone who worked there was a civil servant and had to follow the rules of the Information Service. For the outside world though, the name Multifilm Batavia was kept, on purpose, to uphold the idea that the films produced were not government propaganda, but rather objective, neutral productions.
Following the rules of the Dutch Government Information Service appears to have not been very hard for the people who worked there. In general, they shared the belief of Dutch officials that Indonesia would become independent, in the short or long-term, and within the framework of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Of course, according to them, the Indonesians needed the help of the Dutch as the perception was that they were not yet capable of running their own country. In this perspective, Indonesia was a nascent world, the Indonesians were on their way to adulthood, but not there yet. This attitude prevails in many reports and is most striking in ones that cover traditional craftsmanship, for example this story about making buttons.
The report “Van Kakebeen tot Knoop” from the Wordende Wereld series showing villagers making buttons in 1949 in the village of Pekalongan.
A voice-over telling us “it all depends on the intelligence and drive of the villager” may sound innocent, but conceals fierce paternalism to say the least, disdain lurking around the corner. One can wonder if a report like this, showing “drowsy” craftsmanship, has any meaning for present-day Indonesia. This gets to the heart of the matter: whose legacy do these newsreels represent? Before answering, it should be made clear that Wordende Wereld created many different kinds of reports, and really did bring news from Indonesia, as the subtitle reads.
The next example needs a bit of historical background. This is a report from June 1948. At that point in time, with international mediation, negotiations were taking place on Java between the Netherlands and the Republik Indonesia. However, in this conflict there is another group, the Indonesian Federalists, who oppose the one nation state of the Republik Indonesia with its leader president Soekarno. The federalists are supported by the Dutch. When a commission of the federal state of East Indonesia travels to Djokjakarta, the capital of the Republik Indonesia, a Dutch film crew goes with them and they make the first film that is known to the outside world of daily life in the Republic.
The report “Goodwill-Missie van Oost-Indonesië Op Reis” [Traveling Goodwill Mission of East Indonesia] from Wordende Wereld showing street views of Djokjakarta in 1948.
Even with the paternalistic voice-over and the rather embarrassing use of music, this is a report that can be valuable as cultural heritage for Indonesia, particularly since no film footage about this period is known from the Indonesian side. The newly proclaimed Republik Indonesia had its own governmental film service and made films and news reports, but it is not known what happened to these or if they are preserved. In this Wordende Wereld report, at least we get a glimpse of life in Djokjakarta.
Why is all of this material not kept in Indonesia itself? Regardless of the content, everything has in fact been filmed there. Additionally, when sovereignty was transferred, the newsreels were in Indonesia; the film studio in Jakarta and all its assets were formally transferred to the Republik Indonesia at the end of 1949. Production of weekly newsreels continued until March 1950—some of the Dutch cameramen stayed on and were employed by the Indonesian government. Newsreels of those months show president Soekarno on a state visit to India and Pakistan for example.
Shortly thereafter some unfortunate events caused a fire in the archives of the film studio; most of the newsreels went up in flames. Following this, the Indonesian Ministry of Culture asked Multifilm in the Netherlands if they would be willing to send them their copies of the newsreels; copies were in fact housed in the Multifilm archives in the Netherlands because Wordende Wereld was also shown there. Multifilm had no problems in sending their copies to Indonesia, they had no value to them anymore, but they did think wise to consult the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs first: would they be interested to have a look and maybe finance making copies of the reports that could have value for Dutch history?
The Ministry said yes, so a civil servant had a look and made a list; one of his choices later became a classic for Dutch viewers: the arrival of Prime Minister Louis Beel at the airport in Jakarta and the absolutely servile way the reporter asks him questions, starting with “Did you have a good trip, your excellency?” Journalism of bygone days.
About forty percent of the newsreels were copied. After this, Multifilm shipped all of the newsreel film cans they had to Indonesia. End of story? In fact, no. In the beginning of the 80s the Dutch Government Information Service showed a renewed interest in the Wordende Wereld. The Indonesian government was all too happy to ship them back—in exchange for video copies. VHS is much easier to handle, they thought. But most of us know what this means—that these copies are hardly usable anymore. As such, since the beginning of the 90s all, or most, of the “original” Wordende Wereld reports are housed at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.
Until recently, Dutch scholars have had to make special appointments to view these films. But now, with YouTube, Vimeo and whatever online channels one can imagine, including Sound and Vision’s own channels, viewing can technically be made possible for everyone. A lot of these newsreels are digitized, but are not available online. Not yet, anyhow, but this can change. Copyright ownership might be an obstacle, but according to Dutch law, government-produced films as these ones are, are free of copyright after seventy years. With the Wordende Wereld series being produced until 1950, the seventy year waiting period in fact comes to an end this year, in 2020.
In my opinion, it is important that these newsreels become available online, especially making them accessible to Indonesians as only then are they able to consider the value of these Dutch-made newsreels for their own history. And only then is a discussion possible about the meaning and importance of these newsreels for both countries. I would love to be part of that, because whatever the judgement may be about their content, the newsreels are part of a web of colonial heritage, shared between Indonesians and the Dutch.
This paper is based on the PhD dissertation of Gerda Jansen Hendriks, Een voorbeeldige kolonie. Nederlands-Indië in 50 jaar overheidsfilms 1912–1962, Amsterdam, 2014, pp. 248–250; 271–309. https://hdl.handle.net/11245/1.432630.