Joost Conijn

Les très riches heures de Siddieqa, Firdaus, Abdallah, Soelayman, Moestafa, Hawwa et Dzoel-kifl. That could have been the title of Joost Conijn’s latest video, Siddieqa, Firdaus, Abdallah, Soelayman, Moestefa, Hawwa and Dzoel-kifl, 2004, named after seven children, aged three to fourteen, from a native Dutch family gone Muslim. Conijn—like the Limbourg brothers, who illustrated a book of hours for the Duc de Berry in the early fifteenth century—documents the course of a year of life. Living in a trailer park in a desolate industrial area on the outskirts of Amsterdam, the children partake in a cornucopia of activities that seem to be ordered according to the seasons: repairing bicycles, breaking ice, and chopping wood in the winter; shoplifting candies and washing go-carts in the spring; riding mopeds and lying in mud puddles in the summer; building forts, salvaging old bread, and exploring gutters in the fall.

Conijn has subtly edited the sequences and made a judicious choice, if one considers the mass of material he must have collected in a year. While presenting children living at the margins—economically, socially, religiously—Conijn situates them firmly in Holland, which surfaces through Dutch icons, albeit deromanticized. Shell—once the national oil company—owns the gas station where the kids buy and steal candy. Old-fashioned windmills have been replaced by towering wind generators, revolving on the horizon, while the canals are nothing more than sewers of inky industrial waste. Quaint houses have evolved into trailer homes, an ode to the Dutch miniature gone mobile. Even the hoariness of tradition persists in the decrepitude of rotting trailers at the site. Both landscape and period piece, the film confounds utopian and antiutopian visions of the Netherlands. The boys lying in a gigantic mud puddle, their faces turned to the sun, recall Brueghel’s painting showing a peasant resting during the harvest, except the haystacks are mounds of dirt.

These contrasts are embodied by the children, who are conspicuously Dutch and conspicuously Muslim—a challenge to those currently villainizing the country’s Muslims. There are shots of Firdaus’s blue eyes framed by a tie-dyed headscarf and Soelayman’s golden yellow Mohawk. Conijn also confounds the distinction between childhood and adulthood, homo ludens and homo faber, innocence and knowledge. It’s hard not to cringe watching three-year-old Dzoel-kifl break the window of an abandoned trailer with an axe, but it’s just as difficult not to share in his joyful surprise as he yells, “I did it!” The one adult with a minor role is annoying: Cooking over a fire, he warns the children (in English), “Be careful!”—an order that they ask Conijn to translate into Dutch. As the film amply demonstrates, the children are experts at making fires and cooking on them. Even four-yearold Hawwa can chop kindling and feed the flames with newspaper.

The most powerful scene in fact belongs to Hawwa, and every documentary filmmaker would do well to put the resultant still over the editing deck. After sticking out her tongue and showing her age in fingers, Hawwa picks up a metal tube and looks through the imaginary viewfinder at Conijn’s camera. Her gesture attests not only to mimetic play but also to her refusal to be consumed as a merely passive image. Like her older sister Firdaus, who never registers the camera, Hawwa has no sense of being an aesthetic object, caught between voyeurism and exhibitionism. The scene leaves one wishing that Conijn would have given the children the camera so that they could have documented their own très riches heures.

Jennifer Allen