Eline Jongsma is one half of Jongsma + O’Neill, an award-winning Dutch-American creative team working at the intersection of documentary, art, and technology. Jongsma + O’Neill’s latest project, the interactive documentary Empire, can be experienced here.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
EJ: A hidden synagogue in the mountains of Indonesia. A Dutch-style village in the Sri Lankan rainforest. A white separatist enclave in the South African desert.
These are just a few of the communities brought to light in Empire, an immersive documentary project that examines the still-unfolding legacy of Dutch colonialism. Shot in ten countries over four years, Empire employs a broad range of storytelling techniques—including nonfiction filmmaking, multi-channel video projection, and digital storytelling—to unearth the contemporary aftershocks of the world’s first brush with global capitalism.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
EJ: In the lead up of a new-media art residency in Sri Lanka, I was told about a Dutch fisherman who had built a traditional Dutch-style village in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle. The initiative was charitable: the village was really a sort of homeless shelter where older people who had been living on the street could find a new life. At the same time, the endeavor felt odd—the white guy in the jungle creating his own society based on his own ideas of right and wrong. It was immediately appealing to us as filmmakers, so we decided we had to meet this good-natured Colonel Kurtz.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
EJ: Being homeless ourselves for almost four years. We gave up our place in Brooklyn to save money at the beginning of the shoot, and then stayed in short-term apartment rentals in the ten countries we worked in. It was enormously liberating at first, but living out of a suitcase for that long really started to wear on me after a few years. In the end, all I was thinking about was what kind of wallpaper I would want in my new place.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
EJ: Ha! No theater here. After people close the website, I want them to understand that globalization has been happening for a long, long time. And that there is beauty in the tragic.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
EJ: Don’t wait for someone to give you the opportunity to be in charge, because you may be waiting forever.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
EJ: That my co-director and I think colonialism was okay, just because we are illuminating the gray areas: the place of cultural hybridity in society, the awkwardness of politically correct thinking, how the oppressed become oppressors. That kind of stuff.
W&H: How did you get your film funded?
EJ: Funding Empire was a combination of public (arts) funding, self-financing, and prioritizing the production above all else.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
EJ: I really had to think about that. Sad, right? I pick Morvern Callar by Lynne Ramsay. It was a huge inspiration to me visually, and the lead character is very well written.