Photo credits: © 2019 Feargal Agard
Interview by: Feargal Agard | Director: Frank Zichem | Films: Gebri Doro (1970), Wij slaven van Suriname (1999) and Katibo Yeye (2003).
We know too little about filmmakers with a Dutch Caribbean or Surinamese background. Humans of Film Amsterdam attempts to change this with the interview series Caribbean voices. We kick off with documentary maker Frank Zichem, who was the first black filmmaker to graduate from the Netherlands Film Academy in the early 1970s.
Film director Frank Zichem has just returned to the Netherlands after three weeks of filming on Bonaire when we meet. Because despite being seventy-four years of age, the documentary maker born in Suriname is still fully engaged in portraying injustice and situations that he believes need to be changed. He has been doing that for fifty years and it resulted in an oeuvre that consists of more than two hundred film works and was awarded a Black Achievement Award in 2018. An emotional moment for him, and he gave a moving speech during the award ceremony because, after a long career, he finally received appreciation and recognition from the Afro Dutch and Surinamese community.
I myself have heard a lot about him, but I am aware that he is not very well known in the country where most of his works are shown: the Netherlands. Nevertheless, Zichem directed a significant part of the documentaries about Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles that have been broadcast on Dutch television in the past century. Thanks to him, social issues in Suriname were given more attention. Because of the attention he gave to Suriname and later also the Netherlands Antilles, a change took place and he defined a new image about these countries. He did not do this by imposing his opinion, but instead, let the people in his films speak for themselves. The image of a beautiful overseas colony crumbled and the Netherlands was confronted with a still unknown truth, the deplorable situations in Suriname.
Born in Frimangron, Suriname
Frank Zichem was born on July 14, 1945, in Frimangron, Suriname and shortly thereafter moved to Beekhuizen, a poor neighborhood of Paramaribo. “My mother was an intellectual woman because her husband abandoned her, she had to stop her studies. She then worked hard to support her six children. It was my best time. My mother, but also the environment, gave me a lot of love and I am also well-motivated thanks to her.” It is clear that Zichem’s mother is the most important woman in his life. She was a real encouragement to him.
At the age of ten, he moved to the Netherlands with a couple of Roman Catholic fathers as a priest student. At the age of sixteen, he escaped that pious existence and returned to Suriname. When he returns to the Netherlands around the age of nineteen, he starts an internship at the social-democratic daily newspaper ‘Het Vrije Volk’ with the aim of becoming a journalist. He later became infected with tuberculosis and lived for about five years in a sanatorium, where he developed his drawing talents. At the age of twenty-four, he was allowed to leave the sanatorium and managed to get an internship as a draftsman with Marten Toonder, known for the Tom Poes comics. Zichem could use his creativity there, but his colleagues soon noticed the lack of an academic background.
His real calling: film
During his internship at Toonder, they tried to teach him the art of drawing and he discovers film animation, but later he also gets the opportunity to work on the set of commercials. This is how he discovers his real calling: film. As an assistant on the set, he soon got other roles such as clapper loader, camera assistant, focus puller and he turned out to have a feeling for the profession and that did not go unnoticed. “There were renowned camera people there, such as Eddy van der Enden. Eddy was really such a gentleman. In those days, filmmakers wore a suit and tie, but they said I was getting the hang of it and encouraged me to study at the Film Academy.”
At the academy, Zichem initially wanted to become a cameraman, but gradually his classmates saw that he was stronger in directing than the technical workings. With a script in his hand, focusing his attention on directing actors, he did not initially like it, but that gradually changed. Already during his studies, he directs his first film, Gebri Doro (1970), thanks to his mother who took out a mortgage on the house to be able to finance his film. In the same year, he was able to repay his mother because it was bought and broadcasted by the IKON, to which he is very grateful. At the beginning of his career, IKON played an important role as a client for almost 10 years. IKON television director Wim Koole, now deceased, was a good friend of his. “He always said that I had remained a preacher, perhaps he said that because of my religious upbringing or because I made documentaries for a church broadcaster.”
An oeuvre that consists of more than two hundred films
Gebri Doro is an eccentric Zichem film with which he tells a story to expose a problem. Namely that the population must hate the poor situation in which they live, and understand that it has been forced upon them by the exploiting rulers who then ruled them. The name of the film represents an African deity who arrives in Suriname and symbolizes a potential force that any Surinamese can use to bring about social change. Over the span of his career, he later works on various works that concern Suriname. Among others Wij slaven van Suriname | We slaves of Suriname (1999), a documentary series in which Zichem discusses Surinamese trade union leaders Anton de Kom and Louis Doedel and Katibo Yeye (2003), in which the Surinamese Clarence Breeveld visits Fort Elmina in Ghana where his ancestors were traded as slaves.
In addition to a few drama series and feature films, his work mainly consists of documentaries and no blockbuster films at all. How could that be? Once his internship supervisor, documentary maker Jan Wiegel, said to him, “Frank, first focus ten years on making documentaries, so that you can understand the essence of life and therefore what the essence of film could be. Then you have the chance that you do not imitate life but interpret it, in your feature films. ”It is not necessarily the reason why Zichem makes fewer feature films, but it does provide a leading explanation of why he is focused on making documentaries and why he can perfectly bring out the essence of life in his films.
The films that Zichem has made often show colonial power relationships, injustice, humanity, young people, poverty and circumstances that he would like to bring to the fore. In this way, he makes it discussable and ensures that viewers get a mirror in front of them. On the other hand, he also ensures that the voices of the people are heard in his documentaries. Would it have been a loss if these films had not been made? “I would personally find it a loss because if you put my films in chronological order, you almost have the entire history of Suriname at your disposal.”
That history comes to life in an oeuvre that consists of more than two hundred films and television series episodes. “I myself can come to two hundred, but then it ends. But my friends and acquaintances sometimes remind me that there are many more films that I can hardly remember.” Not many people can say that they have such a large number of film works attached to their name and that they even continue to work in film passed age seventy-four. Zichem is modest about it: “I just do my job. I don’t do it for the prizes and the attention. I am working on a project and when it is ready I move on to the next one.”
A file of memories, a legacy
Do you think your films have brought anything about? “I am busy making films and not releasing films. The producer does that. When I discover afterward that viewers like the films, it makes me happy. I am already satisfied if one can see my films.” No matter how you look at it Zichem’s films have caused something in both the Netherlands and Suriname. Although not in the form of a “landslide”, but equal to the creation of a file of memories, a legacy if you will. “I use my profession for what I believe in, rights and development for everyone in this world. I also believe in respect, love, and compassion for everything that exists. It is very simple and it’s just who I am. I am very sad how governments in some countries treat people. That is why I am not only aiming at raising awareness about these matters in my work, but I also hope that people will do something with it.”
He has been doing this for more than fifty years and still does so. For his most recent documentary, he flew to the western part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Bonaire, to capture the island after the events of 10-10-10. The date on which the then political relationship of the Netherlands Antilles, consisting of Curaçao, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba, was abolished. Curaçao and Sint Maarten, like Aruba, became independent countries within the kingdom. Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba became special municipalities of the Netherlands. Even though this was welcomed, there was also objection.
When I ask Zichem to tell more about the project, he answers: “Not much has come out of this change. Although education, the police, and healthcare are improving, there is still considerable poverty, especially the elderly are very poor. In this documentary, I have taken the youth as an example as much as possible and I am talking about young people from twenty to twenty-five years old. You notice that they are willing to do something, but the government has abandoned poverty reduction and other issues.”
He doesn’t stop making films
Zichem has a big heart for the business because he doesn’t stop making films. He is seventy-four years old and is already working on upcoming projects about which he cannot speak of at the moment. How do you see the future for young and black filmmaking in the Netherlands? “A good academic education is important to learn filmmaking, but you also have to make it your own. as long as you have a love for the profession and talent, but especially compassion for people, then it will not only work well with black filmmakers or Suriname but also with the whole world.”
Photo and interview by Feargal Agard.
Research: Feargal Agard and Guus Schulting.
Beeld en Geluid | Sound and Vision (institute of media culture archives): https://www.beeldengeluid.nl/ | https://www.beeldengeluid.nl/kennis/blog/frank-zichem-focus-op-beeld-voor-beeld
Eye collectioncentre (Archival visits): https://www.eyefilm.nl/collectie/over-de-collectie/collectiecentrum