Dutch director Sandra Beerends, whose mother was born in Indonesia, pays tribute to “all these forgotten women” in the moving dramatised documentary They Call Me Babu, which is streaming in the Sydney Film Festival’s virtual edition.
The fictional Alima – a composite of babus that Beerends discovered during research – finds nannying the only option after fleeing her village for the city to escape an arranged marriage.
She narrates her life story to her late mother with a modern sensibility (“I dare to do anything,” she declares early on) over stunning black-and-white archival footage with a rich soundscape and music added.
Over a turbulent decade, Alima is at the centre of Dutch colonisation, Japanese occupation during World War II, the return of the Dutch then the struggle for Indonesian independence that was finally won in 1949.
Revealing her hopes, fears, desires and conflicting loyalties, she often has a wide-eyed and poetic view of the world. On a trip with the family to Holland, Alima sees the “magical white sand” that is snow and is delighted to be called “madam” for the first time in a shop.
The visuals for the film became possible when Beerends discovered how often Dutch families shot home videos to show their relatives back home. She supplemented clips with scenes from films made by Dutch factories, anthropological documentaries and Dutch, Indonesian and Japanese propaganda footage.
An Indonesian variation on Roma‘s theme of an invisible member holding a family together as history turns, it is the highlight of the Europe: Voices of Women program. With cinemas closed because of the pandemic, a 10-film sidebar has become a centrepiece of a cut-down festival.
In an uneven program – with too many early career films with strong ideas but only average execution – the tense Finnish drama Force of Habit also stands out.
Directed by Kirsikka Saari and Elli Toivoniemi, it has six interweaving stories about what they describe as “the invisible use of power towards women” in sexually charged situations.
In the most uncomfortable to watch film in the festival, most of these situations are sexually threatening, including a teenage girl being harassed on a crowded bus, a young woman being coerced into sex after a party and a holidaying woman groped in a restaurant.
A melding of 11 short films – all made by female directors for an anthology TV series – Force of Habit shows women being forced into frustrated and often angry silence.
While it could have been polemic, Saari and Toivoniemi have been astute enough to make the film about institutionalised power imbalances and human frailty for both men and women – challenging viewers to question how they would respond themselves.
Also enjoyable festival fare are Marta Pulk’s documentary A Year Full Of Drama, about a young woman who is chosen to review every theatre production in Estonia over a year, and Veronique Reymond and Stephanie Chuatare’s drama My Little Sister, which features wrenching performances by Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger as twins thrown into crisis by a cancer diagnosis.
The festival continues until Sunday. Tickets, www.sff.org.au.
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.