The sensory realities of Johan Van der Keuken

Pioneer documentary maker Johan Van Der Keuken surprises us, challenges us, allies the uncomfortable with the beautiful in an arresting filmography.

A girl is interviewed and says that people who can see don’t pay attention to their surroundings, bump into things, but still express pity for blind people because they are different, because they have a handicap. For her, it’s the other way around, it’s people who can see who lack something. She remarks: “they don’t hear the trees.”

In the Blind Child 1 (1964), the soundscape is a perpetual reminder of the presence of things: sound, movement, and touch are blind people’s gateway to keeping in touch with reality. Is sight even necessary? An interesting question to ask in the deeply visual art form that is cinema. Through his strong and varied corpus of innovative documentaries, Dutch filmmaker Johan Van Der Keuken reminds us that cinema is also sound, time, music and movement, and that you can do whatever you want with images: like reframe shots in the film, slow motion, freeze frames.

They can’t hear the trees.

Van Der Keuken first found his voice in photography, and was first exposed at only seventeen. Later formed in l’IDHEC, Paris, he spent two years exploring the French capital visually and intellectually and started filming in 1960. He experimented with documentary, saying the form of his films is more fiction because he fabricates the films. But the people he shoots are real.

For the occasion of Van Der Keuken’s retrospective in the Centre Pompidou in 2018, French documentary maker Claire Simon payed her homage in an interview for Télérama. For her, “Johan Van der Keuken filmed human beings like legendary heroes.”

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