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For God's sake, keep an open mind! Rolf Orthel on Making is Most Beautiful

Making is best, Rolf Orthel's latest film, is an ode to making and its makers. Why does the process of making fascinate? What is creativity or artistry? We meet at bodega Keijzer in Amsterdam, where the waiter knows his coffee preference. We talk about film, parents, getting older, primary school, forests, taking detours to see new things. If we stray too much, Orthel calls me back to the point.

His film meanders just like our conversation, but in both he keeps the direction. Sometimes he speaks with sudden fierce emphasis, at other times we are both moved to tears. Making is best allows the viewer to get close to the process of making, the vulnerability, the hard work and the beauty. During the film journey, Orthel also shows excerpts from earlier work, to explore and interpret his own making process. This sometimes produces ironclad scenes. For instance, his father, composer, piano teacher at the Hague Conservatory and workaholic, has sent Bert Haanstra a letter in which he writes that young Rolf cannot do that much. Orhtel still has no idea why that was. What he does know is that Haanstra did not agree with father.

How do you start a film about the thing you hold most dear, making it?
Was there some kind of lightbulb moment when you got the idea?

No, I don't remember the beginning, but in later years I started walking around more and more with my camera. For instance, I made a film about my Parisian friend, who taught at a free school. After his death, I made a film for his family. If you film random things, you can put that together and have a nice variation of what someone was or is like. I also made a film for a performance, for which I spoke to a number of people. It was about teaching and how you can improve some things in that. You then discover all sorts of things, it's all about the search.

Meetings

The best example played out 10 minutes ago. I'm starting a new film next week, I don't know what it's about yet, but it's about people I love. And what happens next? I endlessly walk back and forth between home, the café for a coffee, the Stedelijk. A new shop has come up for wind instruments. I like that one so much, there's a little table in front of the window and a nice woman sits there fixing things. I left home extra early today and knocked on her door because I am so keen to film how she makes those instruments there. This is how a film begins.

Another example is the Vin School, where students are encouraged to be creative. The school has been around for about seven years and is successful in keeping 'dropouts' in. Pupils' development is central, but they also get a diploma. What is different is that you can make a film for your final exams, for example, And then it is absolutely not about who is the best, the world is collapsing into individualism and someone has to be the best, leaving only losers. It's only about the bank account anymore, what a lame deal. So at the Vine school, things are different.

New plans

One of the two films I want to make now is about the people I love and want to say goodbye to before we both die. The other film is about school. One half of the energy has to go into learning to write, to talk, to know where Timbuktu is, that you know that 1600 was the Battle of Nieuwpoort, the French Revolution, you just have to have knowledge. The other half of the energy can use that knowledge, but should be explicitly about the children being able to discover who they are, who they work well with or not, and a beginning of what direction they want to go in. That's my new film. I will start working on that in November, when I return from Vienna for my other film.

I go to a guy I met when I taught there. He was an incredibly nice student, maybe the best I ever had there. And now he makes a short film every year, he just succeeds. He is in the process of getting his first feature funded. I'm falling for that, for a brain like that. So it's not all about old types recounting how things used to be.

How do you get your people for your films?

The film we are talking about consists of all accidental encounters. Carolien Bijvoet, the painter from the beginning of the film, who I discovered through a photograph that was in a friend of mine, showing her work.
I have long been friends with Evelien van Cleeff, who is the mother of Belle van Heerikhuizen. Belle wanted to go into theatre, did the directing course in Maastricht, and then made Iliad in Amsterdam with friends. I knew she wanted to do another play, with some friends. After endless deliberation, that became a play about Bulgakov, which is how she got into it. That way I was able to experience more of her creative process.

I knew I definitely wanted something to do with piano lessons. And I wanted to do that at the conservatoire where father taught in The Hague. One boy stuck around and that was Abel (laughing) Yes, and then I can't help that that man turns out to be so incredibly nice when you start filming. He gets his ass kicked in the film, but did graduate with a 9 afterwards.

Film as a journey

All I can say is that, by definition, I am interested in how things originate in our brain. What on earth happens that makes something strike you? What do you do with it? And then it turns out that ideas just come at the most unexpected moments. It's definitely not something of I can sit down and think of a film, it doesn't work like that. Especially in documentary territory, if you want to discover things, all you can do is grab your camera and go after it.

I wanted to explore what makes making so fun and interesting, and important. That was my premise, my direction, and after that it can go in any direction. I think you get the best films when the film is the journey, and the journey is the film, that produces the most vivid material.

The film features eight girls who have to draw a tree. Eight girls, eight different trees. And the funny thing is that four of those drawings include a swing. So how come? One girl asked the teacher if she could also draw a swing. Of course she could! And this was copied by three more children.

That's nice, because then you see how that goes, that making, how we do inspiration.

You borrow endlessly from neighbours, from previous generations and from you what you read in the newspaper.

Didn't Jim Jarmusch say something about intelligent stealing? That you should steal what inspires you?

You feel related to it, so then you can also use it as something of your own. In that sense, you don't steal. Something or someone brings you to something and you translate that into your own machinery.

When I can no longer decipher my questions, Rolf shows me his notebook. Neat handwriting, with production in the back, agreements in the front. With Kees Hin, for instance, with whom he often worked. There are many dead friends in his notebook. He has 30 notebooks.
I show my moderating notebook, with my notes in the dark. And I decipher my question again. Besides all the joy and beauty of making, there are passages in it about heaviness, the conscience of the maker and the weight of knowing. We talk about Bert Haanstra, the most generous filmmaker in the Netherlands, according to Orthel. He gave many filmmakers a first chance by making material and people available. Orthel too started with him as an assistant and later got 10 film roles to make his own film about Westerbork.

Can you tell a bit more about that? What makes knowing them heavy?

When you create something, you can't help but go looking. This can be in a very small area, or something bigger or very large. But you go exploring. You discover things without any doubt that you didn't remember very well, or that are completely new, and you have to do something with that. You start to relate to that. You come across less pretty things, things you don't want to know and things you really want to know. And so you get to know yourself better.

I experienced that very much, which is why I know it so well, because between 1965 and 1975 I made the film for which Bert Haanstra gave me ten reels of film. I met SS men for three years, met Primo Levi, read a book about the four worst, most criminal SS men. I wanted nothing to do with the latter people. I wanted to have average SS men. I wanted to have the man who lived in Poland in 1939 and was taken prisoner of war. He was given a choice: do you want to join the SS on our side, or do you want to join the POWs in Poland? He chose the SS and a short time later stood as a guard in Auschwitz. He is the man who was probably the first to use Zyklon-B.

To let something sink in and realise what really happened, that's damn hard. That's that heaviness.

What did you learn, what new things did you learn on your exploration?

Painting, or making music, can also be an escape because the outside world is indigestible. And by realising this all the more, I have increasingly felt the need to weave into the film memories and things that may happen today, or have happened in my life. So my first wife dying, I saw the misery in 2003 in Kosovo: this is happening in our world. You have to relate to that. I am more aware of trying not to close your eyes to things that happen in the world. But you can't allow it all into your life either.

You are 86 and still have plenty of plans. How do you do it?

What makes you not get too old? I want to meet people. Unexpected things are bound to happen again. For God's sake, keep an open eye to what is happening. Don't think "oh there you have that again". Keep watching.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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