by William Stupp
Every year, Movies That Matter brings important films from all over the world to The Hague. The festival puts emphasis on screening films which respond to issues of human rights and sustainability. This year, due to ongoing restrictions on public gatherings, the festival is being held online from March 20th till April 19th. The festival includes dozens of films which grapple with a host of important issues. Among them I review four movies. Antigone, No Gold For Kalsaka, Earth, and When Are You Coming Back, Kees? Though the films are differentiated by their subject matter, style and narrative forms, each represents a director’s creative take on an important subject. Each is a movie that matters.
“When are you coming back, Kees?” This question gnawed at Dutch documentarian Kees Schaap for 31 years. As a 28 year old film student, Kees traveled to the Palestinian Territories to make his first film. From the Westbank village of Hasan, he aspired not only to tell the world the story of a family resisting the Israeli occupation, but also to help them in their fight to hold on to their land. As he made the movie, Kees grew attached to the family headed by the matriarch Umm Mohammad, whose fierceness belied the non-violent nature of her struggle. Then he returned home. A few hundred students saw the movie. The family lost their land. Time marched on.
Schaap’s latest film opens with the director video chatting with Adnan, Umm Mohammad’s son. The film’s titular question, asked by Adnan over the phone, fills Kees with regret. Despite Adnan’s apparent friendliness, we learn that the idealistic Dutchman is hesitant to return to Palestine. As he tells his own son, Kees feels guilty about the whole affair. Because the film never reached a wide audience and the village of Hasan was replaced decades ago by an Israeli settlement, he surmises that in addition to his own sense of shame, the family must resent him as a purveyor of false hope. Swallowing these concerns, Kees comes back. He meets with Adnan and Hassim, who served as translator in the original film. Though a tale of lost causes and ongoing oppression, it is also a story of reconciliation and how it takes place both within the self and between family members.
Kees has decided that this long-dreaded sequel to his first film will not be his alone: it is narrated and co-produced by his son Mark, who is about the same age as his father was in 1987. It is a strong choice, one which adds much emotional resonance to the movie. We learn early on that Mark is less of a political partisan than his father. He is perplexed by his father’s guilt, which he sees as ungrounded. He is disinclined to accept Kees’ view of the Israelis as colonizers, motioning toward a more nuanced position.
Politics shift over time and across generations, as is apparent in both Palestine and the Netherlands. In clips from the first film, we see that the family is defiant, with Umm Mohammad promising to die on the land which is her life. In the years following, Adnan and his brother joined resistance groups, participating in the First Intifada and spending years in jail. The brother was later killed, opening a rupture between Adnan and his mother. In Europe and across the world Kees continued to make documentaries about politically charged subjects.
In the decades since, a change has taken place in the West Bank, as Adnan’s son reveals to Mark. “In the past, fathers wanted their sons to join the resistance. Now they just worry about them,” one youth says to another as both nod with mutual understanding. Despite their separations and lamentations, the film shows us that fathers and sons are bound together. At the end of an exchange between Mark and the son of Hassim in which both men highlight the ways they are different from their fathers, Mark asks if they are nevertheless becoming their fathers. With laughter that nods to the absurdity of the situation, both agree that they are.
Even beyond the occupation of their land, not all is well in the family. Hasan has become estranged from his mother and hints are dropped that this may be the reason for his newfound persistence in convincing Kees to return. This leads to the climax of the film wherein Kees screens his original film for the entire extended family and finally asks the questions which might provide him with absolution. Do they blame him for giving them hope in a hopeless cause?
The tenor of the older generation’s voices have changed over time, and, presented in harmony with the voices of the young, the effect is a film with a very different tone. The fierce defiance and political conviction of the first film gives way to a subtler piece with a lighter tone. The movie is focused not on resistance, but on remembrance; it offers a message about family rather than political conflict. The anger which fueled Umm Mohammad’s family has faded. Despite their losses and the oppression they continue to bear, the family seems happy. So too do Kees and Mark.
When Are You Coming Back, Kees? is a heartfelt and human look back by a director at his first film. It is colored by the passing of years and the inclusion of a new authorial voice, the filmmaker’s son. Though it addresses the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it focuses on something more universal, that is the human ways individuals and families react to political forces which might be impossible to resist. In the end, it seems that Adnan has invited Kees back entirely for personal reasons and not, we are relieved to see, to serve as a political tool.