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MOVIES THAT MATTER 2024

Review: When I Close My Eyes

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- In this hybrid live action-animated documentary, Pieter van Huystee tells the stories of women interned in Japanese camps in the Dutch East Indies during World War II

Review: When I Close My Eyes

During World War II, Japan occupied the colonial Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) and forced women and children into internment camps. In his sophomore directorial effort, Dutch filmmaker and longtime producer Pieter van Huystee blends drawings, animated sequences and talking-heads interviews to reconstruct an emotive account of life in these camps. When I Close My Eyes recently enjoyed its world premiere in the Dutch Movies Matter section at the Movies that Matter Festival in The Hague, Netherlands.

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The filmmaker speaks to several now-elderly women who were children and teens while in the camps, including Lilly Kloots Touwen, Trudy Hommes Wardenier, Yvonne Müller, Femke de Kat, Marij Mouwen and Willy Glorius Jansen, among others. In the interviews, the women elaborate on their memories in the camps, which bring up deep-rooted pain and together become an evocative mosaic of war trauma as felt by civilians. Those interned were forced into manual labour, beaten and starved. They slept and lived in confined spaces, and were made to conform to rituals of subordination; many were also victims of sexual assault by Japanese officials.

In the camps, internees made vivid drawings and detailed watercolour paintings of their lives, documenting both happy and deeply harrowing moments. Animated sequences by Hanneke van der Linden bring the works to life, carefully emulating each piece’s style. These are smoothly edited together by Chris van Oers, crafting a cohesive portrait of the camps with a focus on the experiential level – the shared joy of communal celebrations, the terror felt by mothers when their sons were taken from the camp as soon as they reached puberty. This follows a trend within animated documentary, as also seen in Agnieszka Zwiefka’s Silent Trees [+see also:
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, where filmmakers take elements from subjects’ drawings to build on a film’s expressive range.

Van Huystee’s own mother was interned, which is what led him to pursue the documentary. Although objectivity in documentary filmmaking is itself a fiction, there are times when a topic is perhaps so deeply personal that it mars the film’s delivery. While his exclusive focus on the stories of the survivors is moving and sheds light on an underdiscussed period, When I Close My Eyes suffers from a lack of contextualisation and ultimately feels shortsighted.

At no point does van Huystee ever mention the Dutch presence in the region, under whom indigenous populations suffered massive amounts of violence over centuries. The interviewees speak of living beautiful lives with the help of local servants and, for many, significant amounts of wealth enabled by the Dutch conquest of the territory starting in the 1600s. There is an inherent danger in comparing trauma, and trying to pit Japanese imperial violence against Dutch colonial violence is a useless endeavour. However, the failure to bring a critical yet balanced eye to many of these statements, as well as a lack of context surrounding the camps themselves, ultimately does a disservice to the experiences of the women, which deserve to be rightfully recognised.

When I Close My Eyes is a Dutch production staged by Amsterdam-based Tomtit Film, which is also handling its world sales.

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