+ -

In July 2020, Conal McStravick interviewed Andre Reeder on Aan niets overladen (1996), the Surinamese and Dutch Caribbean experience of Dutch colonialism and coloniality, the works of Surinamese writer and political activist Anton De Kom and Black Lives Matter activism in the Netherlands.

Andre Reeder is a freelance filmmaker and social worker. He was born in 1954 in Moengo in Suriname, a former colony of The Netherlands in South America.

From 1972 till 1992 he was involved as a volunteer and activist for the organisation LOSON, later Sawo, who fought against racism and for equal rights in the Surinamese community in The Netherlands.

He graduated from the Dutch Film and Television Academy in 1982 and has since made reportage and documentary films about the Surinamese and migrant community in Holland, for national public television and Multicultural Television Netherlands (MTNL). These include Onderneming Onderdak/Operation Shelter (1982), Aan niets overladen/ Cause of death: nothing (1996), Glad to be gay, right? (1992), the series Tori fu Oso/ Stories from home in Suriname (2001), Untold, the story (2006), and the series Experiences (2005). In 2009 he made the video document Black Men, Black Fathers for the conference of the Surinamese community of the Municipality of Amsterdam.

In 2019, together with Roy Wijks and Jules Rijsen, he published the acclaimed book Op zoek naar Papa Koenders/In Search of Papa Koenders. Since 2017, Reeder, Roy Wijks and Ernestine Comvalius have given public presentations on the unknown history of LOSON’s struggle with digitized material from their archives. He is currently working at Venzo as a supporter and advisor to residents’ social initiatives in Amsterdam-Zuidoost

Conal: So, to briefly explain I saw Aan niets overleden/ Cause of death: nothing for the first time, at the end of 2019. It was screened at tender center, Rotterdam in a programme titled Collectivising Queer Care developed with Katherine MacBride and Ferdiansyah Thajib to contextualize Dutch AIDS activism and immigrant experience of healthcare during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and with regard to your film and your activism, to explore the experience of the Surinamese community and Dutch people of color, in particular. I think what was so striking for most of the audience, myself included, was this very powerful and persuasive way in which you built on the cultural and critical language of AIDS activist video to speak directly to the experience of the Surinamese community in the Netherlands.

Do you think you could briefly explain how Aan niets overleden was made and how it was broadcast?

Andre: Aan niets overleden was made when I connected with Mitra Rambaran of the public health service in Amsterdam, who worked with different non-white communities. We teamed up and presented it to MTV, (Migrant Television) a cable network which doesn’t exist anymore, who were broadcasting in the four biggest Dutch cities. So, they picked it up and it was also broadcast nationally because Dutch national public television regularly took productions from MTV. They sent it to a festival of local documentaries and there it won the prize of the best local documentary 1996.

Conal: How was the film taken up by the Surinamese community in the Netherlands, or indeed in Suriname? Did it have a public health or a public service role?

Andre: It was used in the Surinamese community because it was a co-production with the public health authority in Amsterdam and it was also broadcast in Suriname.

We are only half a million population in Suriname, but, I think everybody who could see it saw it. All of a sudden I and other people from my team got telephone calls from people saying that they had seen the film, and of course, for those times, it broke taboos because I think in general AIDS was a big taboo in society, but in particular in our community.

When the film came out, we had braced ourselves for a lot of negative reactions from our Surinamese community. But, on the contrary, people were pleased with the film and they said it was very inspiring. And this is because of the heroism, as I see it, of the people in the film with AIDS and those who are HIV positive, that talked about their situation publicly, knowing that that is a big taboo in our small community.

They were taking a big risk socially to come out like that.

Conal: Yes, of course.

Andre: I always say, ‘Why did I do this?’ Well, it all started with a very good friend of mine.

Conal: Morales?

Andre: Exactly, I’m telling his story in the film. That’s where it started… Morales got AIDS and along with a lot of other friends we took care of him, but then I noticed the negative reactions and the taboo surrounding his illness.

Conal: And this taboo and this scenario of denial following Morales’ death of an AIDS-related illness lends itself to the title ‘Aan niets overleden,’ meaning in English, ‘Cause of death: nothing.’

Andre: Yes, exactly. That title originates from an actual conversation I had, you know…? I got so fed up and I just made a decision that I was going to counter this attitude with this film. And everybody said, I was crazy, that it was never going to happen. In hindsight, I say it’s like a spirit took over my body and that’s how this film came into existence. Because if I look back, I can’t imagine how we did it, but it somehow happened. It’s like, we were possessed by a spirit who drove us to do this.

Conal: I like that idea. One of the things that I want to talk to you about is contextualizing this ‘spirit’ of Aan Niets overleden with regard to the move towards Surinamese independence and post-independence. In particular, you’ve mentioned the influence of Anton De Kom (1898-1945), the Surinamese writer, activist, Communist party member and member of the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation, who wrote the book, Wij slaven van Surinam/ We the Slaves of Suriname in 1934. So, in particular looking at the film in terms of a deeper decolonial history in Surinamese culture and politics.

Given the little that I know admittedly of Anton De Kom (as his work is not currently available in English), it seems that through his respective activities he balanced an attitude of calling into question the horrific legacies of colonialism in Suriname with a great love for his country. While he hoped to return to Suriname to see it liberated, when he did so that opportunity was denied to him by the colonial authorities and he was promptly forced back into exile in the Netherlands.

Just to return to the film, I think Morales was a music journalist and you start with this piece of music that he played that sets the scene in a way. In as much as there is a critique of certain conservative attitudes, self-evidently there’s also a great love of Surinamese music, culture and literature. So while the film takes on the language and the polemicism of AIDS video activism, I think the power of the film resides in the fact that while you do call out stigma and denial towards AIDS in the Surinamese community, I think you also stage the vibrancy and passion within Surinamese music, language and culture and this extraordinary resilience within the community.

I think your film inhabits the spirit of the language and identity of Suriname, this creole vernacular and the polemics of potent cultural forms as cultural activism.

Andre: Yes, it’s very good to hear you saying this, because I often say, despite all kinds of negative attitudes, Surinamese people have resilience and a zest for life which you sensed in my film and the way the film was made. You’re very right, but particularly in the sense of decolonization, Aan niets overleden was a marking point in the decolonization of our perception of ourselves. Because it was the first time that a TV documentary was completely in the Surinamese language. I did that on purpose.

In colonial times our language was always looked down upon as ‘n—– talk’ but in practice in our country we talk in our own language a lot. So, in that sense it breaks this colonial idea by using the language and using the music in relation to sharing messages through our music. Our population consists of many ethnic cultural groups who have their own history and how they came to Suriname. I deliberately used people from different cultural backgrounds in the film choir to bring it as close as possible and therefore to be as recognizable as possible for the Surinamese community.

Conal: I think, it might be worth saying something about the language. My understanding is that it’s a creole language which in itself tells the story of Suriname because it contains elements of English grammar and Dutch vocabulary, that is to say the language of the colonizers, along with Indonesian and African words, which reflects those who were enslaved or indentured in Suriname.

Andre: …And I just love the language!

Conal: When we screened the work just last year a lot of Dutch people in the audience for the screening said how powerful it was, even now, to see a television documentary address a Surinamese/ Dutch audience in the Surinamese language.

Andre: I will never forget at the premiere in 1996 that a Surinamese person came to me and said, ‘When I see the film I am so proud to be Surinamese.’ I was a little flabbergasted. But, I thought if that’s also an effect then that’s fantastic as colonialism taught us all kinds of negative things. It means that I succeeded in coming as close as possible to who we really are.

Conal: That leads us on to the subject of Dutch coloniality. In terms of when you were born, you are part of a generation that saw both the end of the colony and independence when Suriname moved from being a Dutch colony, to being a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1954, before finally becoming fully independent in 1975.

Added to this your experience of living in the Netherlands, in many ways you are well-disposed to see the post-independence legacies of Dutch colonialism from both sides. Could you maybe speak a little bit about how you came to the Netherlands and describe the experience of being Surinamese in Amsterdam and in the Netherlands.

Andre: I grew up in the colony, Surinam. You know, just yesterday I was talking to one of my best friends, we are the same age and she also was born in the colony. She is currently writing an open letter to the National Theatre newspaper here in the Netherlands, in which she speaks about how we grew up with this image that everything Western and White was the sum of all civilization, what one should strive for. While in fact, this is based on barbarism and exploitation and therefore that white people in the Netherlands have been educated with a completely false notion of what civilization is and what the Netherlands is…

Conal: I would add that the civilization-barbarism binary of white supremacy and imperialism presumes the privilege to subjugate and de-humanize people.

Andre: Exactly. I grew up with this these images and ideas with the accompanying inferiority complex of not only thinking that everything that was white was better and nothing that was Surinamese could ever become something, but also including how I felt about the way I looked. I didn’t look white, so, I thought, ‘Oh my God, why can’t I just be more white?’ You know? I stood in front of a mirror talking to myself which I laugh about now, but it’s horrible. It’s terrible to condition people like that and to grow up like that, having this idea about themselves, mentally and physically.

I was full of questions growing up in Suriname regarding racism against black people for example but also why even in my own family darker-skinned children were treated as lesser and then in society the derogatory way that people talked about black people from Africa. I thought, ‘…But why!?’ Also, questions about exploitation of my country’s natural resources like bauxite, gold and so on by these multinationals. My father worked for this big American multi-national but there were Dutch multi-nationals. Again, I asked, ‘… Why!?’

Then I came to the Netherlands as a student and came into contact with Surinamese students who were studying Marxism, Leninism, imperialism and colonialism and also with well-informed international authors on these subjects, that I became more conscious of this and started this struggle to free myself. Not only personally but to see things more broadly and to understand colonial history; and that’s where I got the answers for the questions that I was living with, having come from this colonial country. I immediately became active in the struggle against racism in the Netherlands, particularly against the Surinamese community and I have never stopped engaging in that struggle.

Following independence, tens of thousands of our people had travelled there. We became involved in the struggle for housing and against the repressive rules of the Dutch government. Meanwhile, we had been their colony for 400 years and they had profited hugely in that. I also encountered racism here, I’m not black but the Netherlands had Indonesian colonies and Dutch colonialism has its Indonesian side and I look like that. I was proactively profiled by the police and in public places people would sling all kinds of remarks and in general people thought you were stupid. These are examples of the kinds of daily racism that I experienced and that our people experienced.

For 20 years I was an activist in a Surinamese organization called LOSON, where we did presentations about Surinamese history and struggle, we made films and staged actions.

Conal: There was a really amazing organization that was discussed that evening in Rotterdam that did poetry workshops with Dutch people of color and worked to challenge HIV stigma, racism and Islamophobia in the Amsterdam gay community.

Andre: After twenty years of this previous activism I became involved with a queer of colour LGBT+ organisation, Strange Fruit, which was a very taboo-breaking organization for Netherlands people of colour and for the black community in the 1990s. Aan niets overleden was made in collaboration with that organization and another organization named Together We Live, which organized care through family and friends of people with AIDS or HIV and with whom we did all kinds of activities.

Conal: For me, another powerful thing in the film is acknowledging that while community and family can present problems for HIV positive people, equally you show the value of community and family support as collective care. These include a HIV positive grandmother who’s playing with her grandchild and a young man living with AIDS with family care. For example when he’s facing quite a serious deterioration in health he reassures his family that all he wants to do, his main wish for himself and for them, is to come together and share food; so really very loving and caring images of people living with HIV or living with AIDS.

Just thinking of the kinds of cultural activism that Strange Fruit engaged in I think there is a resonance with Marlon Riggs, particularly with Tongues Untied and Riggs’ collaboration with Essex Hemphill and his peers. Especially the way that this combines the lessons of black power and black feminism of the 1970s by taking control of language and representations or indeed ‘perverting the language,’ as Riggs and Hemphill put it.

Andre: Marlon Riggs and Tongues Untied most definitely were an influence, because we met personally. He was a very big inspiration for me, he was very taboo-breaking and he played a major role in the development of black consciousness, not only in the in the gay and lesbian community, but in the black community in general.

Conal: …And re-forging those links in the context of black experience under Regan and Bush. Some of his short films like No Regrets, Anthem or Affirmations are very in tune with yours; the combination of testimony with performance in those works. I think that impetus within AIDS activist video of taking back the control of images of HIV and AIDS, and really instrumentalizing that also rings true and simultaneously acknowledges the archive and language of AIDS activist works. This hybridized, political and polemicized form of cultural critique.

I think at the beginning, you show two photos of Morales sick and healthy which reminds me of the media critique sequence at the beginning of Bright Eyes by Stuart Marshall, which in fact started this series. There Marshall does a visual critique of the way that the media manipulates images of AIDS within a legal, medical and criminal discourse of homosexuality as a disease. In his work and yours it’s done in such a way that speaks to the urgency of tackling homophobia and racism in treating HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s. And yet Aan niets overleden marks another threshold as it was made at a point in time when combination therapies were just becoming more widely available, when up until that time, people living with HIV and AIDS were dying in increasingly large numbers.

Additionally, therefore, I think, a work like Aan niets overleden, like other AIDS activist works of the mid-late 1990s simultaneously tells two stories. It marks a new chapter in the northern globe, in terms of HIV treatment because people there could avail of public healthcare and could look forward to having a future, rather than living day to day, month to month. At the same time this and other works of the period continue to speak to the global pandemic of the Southern globe, to try to address the inequities of HIV and AIDS healthcare and medication, not least for people of color.

Andre: Yes, I was inspired by people like Marlon Riggs and it’s very interesting to hear you talk about my work in the context of developments in Europe and other parts of the world. Have you seen my film, Glad to be gay, right?

Conal: No, I haven’t, I’d like to see that.

Andre: You haven’t seen that, no? Because that was made even before Aan niets overleden.

That time in the Netherlands was very unique because up until the 1990s, even, although LGBTQ+ emancipation and coming out had started in the 1970s onwards, if you look at television especially, gay and lesbian people were still very much stereotyped. My aim was to present these people as human beings that were life-like, and in terms of their feelings, that anybody could identify with. Because our emotions are not different despite one’s gender, sexuality or whatever and our emotions derive not only from the relations we have with people of our own gender or sexuality.

Conal: I think it would be good to say something about this in the context of the experience of the Surinamese community during the Coronavirus pandemic and the wider Dutch context for the Black Lives Matter uprisings.

Just to put this into a UK context, today there’s a newspaper report in which a number of leading UK academics of color have written to the UK Home Office to state that the history component of the UK citizenship test has whitewashed Britain’s colonial and imperial history and with this the decolonial efforts of colonized and enslaved peoples. This highlights ways that recent Conservative governments have sought to instrumentalize the re-writing of history and the teaching of colonial history in schools and universities in order to fit with their own political agendas.

In the context of Brexit, the Windrush scandal and other forms of institutional racism, the rise of neo-colonialism and populism compounds the evidence that people’s rights are mutable and people’s citizenship is being used to reconstitute coloniality – the surest evidence of ways in which people in the UK live with coloniality day to day. Is there anything to say in terms of the ways that the UK and the Netherlands, in spite of their shared and repressed colonial histories, have for a long time traded on their perceived liberal values?

Andre: It’s the avowed purpose of the Netherlands, to project an image of liberalism, of equality, of caring for the suppressed and people who have it hard in Africa. But you know, it’s all just bullshit, pure bullshit…

Conal: At the same time, I think that in both places that image has been somewhat tarnished in the last two decades. In the Netherlands this was signalled by the rise of Pim Fortuyn the gay, racist, Islamophobic leader of the LPF, when the Netherlands became the first European country to experience a surge in right-wing populism that continues with the kinds of populisms that we now increasingly see all over Europe and internationally, including in the UK that are notable in the ways they seek to normalize right-wing agendas.

Andre: A big factor in tarnishing this false image was the activism in response to the blatantly racist ‘Zwarte Piet’ or ‘Black Pete.’ Zwarte Piet is the black ‘helper’ of Sinterklaas, the Dutch equivalent to Santa Claus, who is performed by actors in black face and anachronistic dress comparable with the kinds of racial stereotyping seen in black minstrel conventions in Anglophone theatre and pageantry.

When Quinsy and Jerry who as activists started wearing these t-shirts with ‘Black Pete is racist,’ in 2011 they were assaulted and received racist abuse and that’s when the wider world started picking up on the Sinterklaas and Black Pete festival and more and more, the Dutch liberal image was tarnished. The protests attracted counter-protests of the Dutch right and those connected to the British right-wing parties and more fascist-like parties and this tarnished the image further.

Now following the Black Lives Matter uprising, Marc Rutte, the same premier of the Netherlands who used to say, ‘Black Pete is just black…’, now says Black Pete is racist and there are systemic forms of racism. But it appears somewhat opportunistic, when following the Black Lives Matter movement, the same premier of Holland who once said Black Pete is okay now says it’s no longer acceptable. I have no respect at all for this man and I never will. And, you know, as a statement of fact, it’s almost exemplary of Dutch politics. They’re so opportunistic. They’re so inhuman. I can have no respect for them at all.

Conal: I do think there’s an increasing extent to which issues of diversity have dovetailed with the desire of neoliberal capitalism to diversify itself just so long as it’s complimentary to freedom of commercial and mercantile interests and even if on an ethical and humanitarian level, capitalist values are contradictory. I think in today’s global markets the liberal narrative of being ‘the caring society’ is a covertly neo-colonial tactic where in the shop window you parade liberal values, even if this is contradicted by hidden exploitative globalised labour practices or ecological impacts.

Andre: You know, the interesting thing with the Black Lives Matter uprising is the amount of young white Dutch people participating, even in smaller towns. There have been a lot of panels on TV with black activists and some white activists too. I saw one young white woman who said: ‘You know, I’m so fucking fed up with what they’ve taught us, and it should fucking stop, now!’ You know? They’re so fed up; it has reached the limit. I always say you can fool some people sometime, but you can’t fool everyone all the time. With this uprising, it feels that a certain limit has been reached with white people, which of course gives one hope.

Conal: Maybe just to return to Anton De Kom before we finish, what do you think are the most valuable lessons from his work and his efforts to draw the horrors of slavery into political critique and the left political critique of the legacies of colonialism and imperialism, both then and now. I mean, I think maybe people watching your film or reading this might be more familiar with the lessons of Francophone or Anglophone Caribbean experience and I think it would be interesting for the audience to reflect upon the added lessons of Dutch Caribbean experience.

Andre: Well, he was the first, and maybe the only one in his time to offer the perspective of those enslaved during Dutch colonialism in Suriname. Although further books have been written after that, if all you had ever heard was the whitewashed version of history and what really happened there, does one know what that means? In the first place of course, black people were de-humanized and he provided the black perspective on economic and other developments, restoring black people to being considered as human beings and to expose what colonialism meant for black people.

I remember when I first read him it was, how should I say it? With this book, this man helped me free myself from the inferiority complexes I was living with. He played a major part in that because of the book he wrote. A few months ago, the book was published again and it has been discovered by a professor from an English university, I forgot which, who was raving about Anton De Kom’s , Wij slaven van Suriname and was placing it within the scope of revolutionary writers of the French and English Caribbean and so in combination with the uprising, during which his name has been mentioned a few times, Wij slaven van Suriname is now number 30 on the national bestseller’s list.

Conal: That’s so amazing. I would really love to read it but at the moment I can only find the Dutch version. I think it’s hugely important to join up colonial histories and I do hope that that’s something that can continue through this movement. Namely, to find ways to share the resources to underpin the trans-national character of experiences of racism and coloniality. I would recommend anyone who can’t read the book to watch the documentary on De Kom that was made for MTV, subtitled in English, currently hosted on The Black Archives website.

It’s so moving; especially his daughter’s testimony about De Kom’s hopes of returning to Suriname, his almost immediate return into exile in the Netherlands once he tried to do so and the straitened circumstances that he and his family found themselves in on their return. But despite this, he continued to pursue his efforts to write and to educate other Communists, many of whom were young white Dutch Communists and he connected to the nascent Indonesian independence movement. Finally during the Nazi occupation, whilst he was involved in the Dutch Resistance, he was arrested and sent to a German labour camp where he later died of TB.

It’s very, very moving story and a hugely inspirational life.

Andre: In 1988, LOSON, an activist organization for Surinamese nationals in which I participated between 1972 and 1992, declared it to be the year of Anton De Kom. In the Bijlmer with other Surinamese citizens we campaigned for a square to be named after him, we demonstrated at Parliament, we published a book called Anton De Kom: His Struggle and his Ideas, in which among others, we interviewed white Dutch resistance fighters who had known De Kom during the Second World War and all kinds of initiatives with other Surinamese organizations. So, we had a range of activities and we did a lot of research on Anton De Kom. That’s why I and my friend Roy Wijks are in this documentary because when the filmmaker discovered how much research we had done, he was so impressed.

Conal: Recently there have been efforts on behalf of students in art schools and universities in the UK to decolonize and to queer their education and reading.
I think those forms, just even to begin with my own experience as a queer artist and educator, I think using study groups and workshops can be a really powerful way to re-approach history in terms of bearing witness to the past that has been handed down to us and side-lined or forgotten. My interest in the HIV AIDS archive is motivated by a desire to share and expand knowledge around the experience of people who have lived with HIV and AIDS and its many intersections. And equally with this program expanding out from that the experiences of people of colour, women, women or LGBTQ+ people with health care or care issues and disability rights, all of these things. It reminds one I suppose that struggles have always continued, there is a certain continuity within these struggles.

Andre: They haven’t ended and yet sometimes in my community with my friends we say if our ancestors could survive the barbaric slave period under such circumstances, so what is it that we are suffering? It’s nothing compared to that and we are still here, and we are continuing on.

Conal: Absolutely. The various ways that racism, social inequalities or social injustices still continue as traces of coloniality.

You know you hear people say, ‘Oh, well, why continue fighting for this, that and the other when we have achieved so much already?’ You hear that repeated by the LGBTQ+ community but I prefer to think, it’s about building solidarity between oppressed peoples and exposing unseen oppressions. It’s about fighting for people’s rights and their dignity and any sort of liberation that is so unequal, or disenfranchises others is perhaps not worth it.

Andre: I agree.

Conal: Well, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about the film and to discuss your life-long engagement with Anton De Kom and your passion for Surinamese language, culture and community that has propelled your films and your activism. I sensed when we met a few months ago that this was not only a conversation worth continuing but a conversation which I think is very much worth sharing with a wider audience, especially in the context of the project.