Celluloid Colony: Locating History and Ethnography in Early Dutch Colonial Films of Indonesia

Jorien van Beukering

What role is there for non-fiction film, especially propaganda film, in history and ethnography? Writer, visual artist, and historian Sandeep Ray addresses this question in Celluloid Colony: Locating History and Ethnography in Early Dutch Colonial Films of Indonesia. Analysing a selection of colonial propaganda films of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) held at the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision, Ray argues that these propaganda films are viable historical primary sources that offer valuable ethnographic data about early 20th-century colonial Indonesia. Well-written and extensively researched, Celluloid Colony offers a compelling case for non-fiction film as a bona fide historical source.

Celluloid Colony is structured chronologically around three periods of filmmaking in the Indies: initial colonial film ventures (1912-1913) by the Dutch Colonial Institute, films jointly commissioned by corporations and the Colonial Institute (1917-1927), and missionary films (1923-1930). The introduction offers a four-step methodology for approaching non-fiction film as primary source material, implemented in the following chapters. In Chapter One, Ray situates propaganda film in relation to other non-fiction films in colonial studies and considers how fiction and non-fiction films can be utilised by historians. Chapter Two outlines how the Dutch Ethical Policy’s (1901) vision of a civilized native population translated into propaganda films depicting a peaceful, humane colony. Analysis of the films begins in Chapter Three, which centers on films made in Java between 1912-1913. Chapter Four considers films of Sumatran plantations and mines commissioned by the Colonial Institute and large corporations, while Chapter Five turns to films made on Flores by evangelist missionaries belonging to the Societas Verbi Divini. The final chapter ties the preceding chapters together and defends the book’s central argument against critiques of film.

One of Celluloid Colony’s strengths is its engagement with a previously under-studied collection of films. Ray examines productions by six filmmakers: J.C. Lamster, L.Ph. de Bussy, Willy Mullens, I.A. Ochse, Willy Rach, and Father Simon Buis. Rich background information about the films and their creators allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the colonial Indies and the early 20th-century Netherlands, as well as how policy changes in the imperial metropole influenced filmmaking in the colony. An important contribution by Celluloid Colony is its analysis of how the films’ meanings have changed for audiences over time. In Chapter Four, Ray points out that De Bussy’s films Immigratie in Deli (“Immigration to Deli,” 1917) and Kolonisatie van Javanen op eene Delische Tabaksonderneming (“Settling Javanese Workers on a Deli Plantation,” 1917) intended to showcase “efficient management” (p. 103) of coolie labour on Sumatran plantations. However, 21st-century viewers perceive the racism and exploitation inherent in the colonial system as well as the impending end of Dutch colonialism. Equally compelling is Ray’s suggestion in Chapter Three regarding Lamster’s film Het Nederlandsch-Indische Leger; De Infanterie (“The Netherlands Indies Army; Infantry,” 1912-13): that footage of Indonesian labourers acting without deference towards European overseers challenges the image we have formed of colonial life – namely, submissive Indonesians dutifully obeying the European coloniser – as a result of interacting with static photographs or written primary sources. Ray’s close analysis of the propaganda film collection brings to light new information about the Indies that forces us to question our perception of colonial life.

Celluloid Colony also charts developments in filmmaking. The book weaves discussion of evolving film techniques into its analysis: Ray identifies features such as narration, intertitles, editing, the gradual inclusion of re-enactment scenes, more artistic camerawork, and the shaping of ethnographic footage around a clear narrative plotline. These are all portrayed as notable developments in film production. The expanding range of themes broached by the propaganda films is also pointed out: Ray notes that while some of the early films by Lamster depicted scenic colonial landscapes, De Bussy, Mullens, and Ochse turned to labour, plantation production, medicine, and science. Meanwhile, evangelist films on Flores focused on religion and local ceremonies. This is a clear and engaging account both of changing priorities in the colony and of advancing film techniques. Although some of the finer aspects of visual studies are somewhat unclear for readers without a background in film – a definition of “process” and “non-process” films would have been useful – the book offers a comprehensive analysis of developments in Dutch filmmaking in the early 20th century.

A third strength of Celluloid Colony is the extensive historical research supporting the book. Ray acknowledges the bias inherent to propaganda film and draws on a range of written primary sources – including newspaper articles, government and non-government reports, other colonial films, colonial novels, etc. – to verify the films’ content. Comparisons with academic literature further corroborate the footage, and extensive details of geopolitical, economic, and social developments serve to contextualise the films. Despite the book’s selected scope of the early 20th-century Indies – for example, only mentioning Indonesian nationalism to remark its absence from the films – its intention is not to present a comprehensive history. Ray’s research into this period and use of primary sources to authenticate the footage more than adequately contextualise the films. His history-heavy approach is particularly successful in Chapters Four and Five: Chapter Four offers an excellent analysis of films of Sumatran mines and plantations by De Bussy, Mullens, and Ochse, which Ray argues also captured valuable footage of the colonial transmigration scheme and Chinese coolie labour. Chapter Five examines films by evangelist missionaries on Flores. Ray’s investigation here of how the films provide “a visual essay” (p. 159) of the encounter between European missionaries and the local population, and particularly the struggle for dominance between Christianity and Islam, is especially insightful. Another notable feature is that Celluloid Colony is not Java-centric: by also studying films made in Sumatra and Flores, the book acknowledges the diverse experiences of Dutch colonialism across the archipelago. Ray has the ability to make history enjoyable to read, and his insistence that “[h]istory can lurk in isolated moments” (p. 11) helps us to understand how items of historical and ethnographic significance may be found in non-fiction film.

Celluloid Colony is multilayered: it is at once an analysis of Dutch colonial propaganda films, an account of developments in filmmaking, and a history lesson on colonial politics in the early 20th-century Dutch East Indies. It compellingly argues that despite their bias, Dutch colonial propaganda films contain valuable ethnographic material of colonial Indonesia. Ray ends Celluloid Colony with the hope that recent academic and public attention to Indonesia’s violent National Revolution (Revolusi, 1945-1949) will spark greater interest in everyday colonial life, snapshots of which are found in the Dutch propaganda films. Convincing and thorough, Celluloid Colony is a must-read for anyone with an interest in Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, visual ethnography, or propaganda film history.