By Siam Shahkhan
Around the second week of September I noticed oddly shaped statuettes of golden calves popping up around the city of Utrecht, especially near the cinemas which I frequent. I was pleased to discover that the Nederlands Film Festival was commencing and within two weeks, thirty Dutch films were going to be showcased in certain cinemas with some of them holding Q&A sessions between the directors and the audience. I was excited! Nevertheless, I had to wait until the second to last day of the festival to finally watch two films back to back at the Louis Hartlooper Complex and experience the festival.
I blindly bought tickets to the only Dutch film with English subtitles for the last showing of the night and went in expecting a feature length motion picture film. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by an albeit forgettable documentary about a famous photographer from Amsterdam who travels to the United States to overcome her neurosis, anxieties, and depression. Along the way she captures gorgeous portraits of the people she encounters during her motorcycle journey through the deep valleys of Nevada to the mountains of Colorado.
Robin’s Road Trip was an unexceptional documentary in almost every way that I could think of. It included all the unnecessary tropes of pretentious documentary filmmaking: needless extended narration by the subject whilst she looked glumly at her camera and laptop, uninspired shots of the environments and of Robin, and a deeply saccharine message to wrap it up at the end. It seemed like this was a topic more suited to a magazine article, a short video on Youtube, or as a part of a series of vlogs rather than a documentary. I must confess that I actually fell asleep for five minutes in the cinema during this snooze fest and I am ninety percent sure that I missed nothing important. Thoroughly boring and unimportant is the label that I would have slapped on this film. Both the director and the subject seemed completely uninterested in the audience’s questions during the Q&A session after the film. I could not be bothered to engage them anymore after they politely dodged every question that I asked.
After almost passing out in the cinema due to sheer boredom, I was prepared to exit the complex, thoroughly unsatisfied with my Nederlands Film Festival experience, but then one of the festival officials announced that the second film was about to begin, also a documentary. This one had a rather peculiar name which is why I stuck around.
The World According To Monsieur Khiar (Sjors Swiestra 2015), begins provocatively with a closeup of a rather drunk bald man mumbling to himself about his friend Mr. Khiar — whom he considers the greatest artist and person in the world — and how he is truly unworthy to be in his company. He both lambasts Mr. Khiar and praises him, calling him an abusive person but a magnificent artist. The documentary follows the bald Dutch man called Jeroen Robert Kramer whilst he goes about his life in Beirut after retiring from his job as a war photographer for the New York Times. The documentary is rather bizarre as it follows around Kramer whilst he looks for things to photograph and rambles about his favourite topics: war in the Middle East, true art, photography and Mr. Khiar.
The film is interspersed with beautiful stills from Kramer’s camera, from the doorways on the streets of Beirut to the cats littered on the streets. All the while we hear dialogue between Kramer and Mr. Khiar. Mr. Khiar is increasingly dismissive and insulting towards Kramer whilst Kramer fights for Mr. Khiar’s approval until the end. Towards the middle of the documentary a startling detail is subtly revealed about the nature of Mr. Khair to the audience. Without spoiling this wonderful film anymore, I would just like to add that this documentary was a bizarre mindfuck which left me questioning everything I had just seen. I have never been so mesmerized by such a mundane sounding documentary in my life. The film ends on a truly poignant note, making this reviewer particularly teary eyed.
The World According To Monsieur Khiar managed to save the Nederlands Film Festival singlehandedly for me and I have no qualms on calling this film a masterpiece. A marvel of filmmaking and storytelling, that has no rival in this current year both in feature films and documentaries.