PEOPLE – The Dutch Girl and Her Chinese Wall

15 Jun 2004

When Italian comic actor Antonio Albanese announced that she had won the 2004 edition of Slow Food on Film, Systke wasn’t expecting it. It was wonderful that she was there in Bra for the award ceremony, yet had no idea she would win: everyone shared that special moment of genuine happiness when Ms. Kok, sitting next to her mother who accompanied her to the Festival, opened her big blue eyes wide and raised a hand to her mouth in a contagious, yet restrained, expression of delight. As she made her way onstage, Albanese (chairman of the jury panel for this international short fiction film festival on the theme of food) read out the reason for the award:

“The brainless banality of reality shows is unable to scratch the surface of the mystery of other peoples’ lives. But real life offers unparalleled entertainment. With grace and irony, Dutch director Systke Kok has put together the oldest and commonest reality show of all: fantasies about strangers’ lives passing before our eyes; preconceived notions enhanced by the loneliness of the judging observer.

“When we are alone we develop fears, yet sometimes a simple gesture can trigger surprising closeness. The Chinese Wall is a film that fully embraces the Slow philosophy, without limiting itself to Food: it invites us not to hastily disregard people or ideas but to get to know and respect others. Preferably at the table, in a convivial atmosphere”.

How does a short film – just a few seconds over 10 minutes – succeed in earning unanimous approval from the jury and the audience, as well as a prize of 5,000 euros?

Watching De Chinese Muur, it seems to happen because there is a winning idea, able to encapsulate universal truth in a few impressive lines, and the direction goes hand-in-hand with the intentions, stylishly sober with undeniable cinematographic skill.

This short film, set in a Chinese restaurant in Holland, tells the story of Agata (Celia Nufaar), a single woman who has suffered in life, who finds herself dining alone for her birthday. Between one course and another, the woman takes stock of her life. Watching the people at other tables, she draws her own conclusions about their lives, imagining a past, present and future for her fellow diners.

This judgment is impressively overturned by reality which thunders into the restaurant like a breath of fresh air…

The director of this highly successful piece of contemporary anthropology is Systke Kok: limpid, pale blue eyes, long blonde hair, a kind, intelligent expression. She was born in Holland in 1970 and studied screenwriting, direction and montage in Brussels and Amsterdam. In 1996 she graduated from the St. Lucas Film Academy with a short film, Away, which earned critical acclaim. We asked her to tell us something more about the film that triumphed among the 32 short films at the Bra Short Film Festival.

1) Where did the idea for De Chinese Muur come from?

The idea came from the writer of the script Rosan Dieho. She used to go to a small Chinese restaurant where she always saw the same older woman eat all by herself. The woman sat there with a rather motionless face which got her intrigued. Rosan started to wonder what went on in the woman’s head and why she was always eating there by herself. Later, after she wrote the story, Rosan once went back to the restaurant, it was the first time the woman was not there. Then she asked the Chinese owner about her. It turned out the woman had just died, she came to eat there almost every day, but the owner didn’t even know her name.

2) The film centres on how people tend to judge each other incorrectly, rather than on food, doesn’t it?

Food was not the central idea for the film, but it was used as a metaphor for the central theme of the film. For me the film is about how people try to understand one another (or how they sometimes think they do) but never really succeed. To answer also your third question, the Chinese restaurant in Holland was the first type of foreign food that became very popular and later quite common here. The thing is that the food served there was ‘Dutched’ – it lost some of its very Chinese flavours to accommodate the Dutch public. One of the typical things in which this is visible is the sauces they put on the table, next to the Chinese soysauce and hotsauce (sambal) they put there Maggi (concentrated bouillon sauce to flavor soup) which doesn’t fit at al lto the Chinese kitchen but is often seen in traditional Dutch households. I see this as a way in which the Chinese where trying to understand us, but for me it doesn’t work, I rather go to more traditional Chinese restaurants.

3) Why did you choose a Chinese restaurant as a location?

Part of the question I answered above (in answer 1 and 2). Next to this, somehow eating alone in a Chinese restaurant has something more sad and lonely than in any other restaurant. Maybe it’s because it’s a place you would normally go with big groups of people, maybe because if you would want to eat Chinese on your own you would rather get ‘take out’ and eat at home, may be because for a Dutch customer it will never feel like home, I don’t know, there is something sad to it. Next to this it is visually beautiful.

Stefano Sardo is artistic director of Slow Food on Film

Adapted by Ailsa Woods

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